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“Cult of Personality”

“Arbitrage” (B+; SEE IT)

WHAT’S A BILLIONAIRE to do when he falls asleep at the wheel with his French mistress in the passenger seat?  This, after losing 400 million dollars in a failed investment and having to dodge questions by his only daughter (also his chief accountant), who suspects the books have been cooked.

What, also, happens when a half-mad and alcoholic veteran of World War II named Freddie Quell becomes the disciple of a charismatic cult leader named Lancaster Dodd, a man who lures him into his inner circle only to treat him like something of a lab rat?  Okay, make that his favorite lab rat.

These are the twin dilemmas at the core of two superb new dramas, “Arbitrage” and “The Master,” respectively.  Crying out for Oscar gold, both are performance-driven films that revel in man’s fallibility and will to power.  In the former, Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, a great white shark of Wall Street in tailored suits and an elegant penthouse shared by wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon).  Her nightly mantra is “Working late again, honey?” when, in reality, she knows more than you (and husband Robert) think.  Miller has gone on deceiving Ellen and his investors long enough when a freak car accident turns his life (and luxury sedan) upside down.  Without a fixer like Michael Clayton of his own on speed-dial, he flees the scene and calls on Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of his chauffeur, to ferry him back to Manhattan and pretend as if nothing ever happened.

The live-in butler who sees Miller burning his clothes in a trash can later that night is nothing compared to NYPD detective Michael Bryer (played by Tim Roth), who doggedly pursues the billionaire with questions  and accusations.  Something of an Inspector Javier, he tells a fellow investigator: “He doesn’t get to walk just because he’s on CNBC.”  First-time director Nicholas Jarecki is the son of husband-and-wife commodity traders – his half brothers are also the documentarians responsible for “Why We Fight” and “Capturing the Friedmans” – which means that film and finance are what the Jarecki family do best.  Driven by Gere’s anti-hero, Jarecki’s plot is intriguingly layered but really no more complicated than your average episode of “The Good Wife” or “Law and Order.”  Instead “Arbitrage” is a character study, powered, as it is, by excellent pacing and a memorable performance by Richard Gere, long overlooked because of, well, his looks and box-office appeal.

Yet Gere, now a silvery 62, has challenged himself as of late – recall his happy hands in Chicago and the wounded rage of his cuckold in Unfaithful – and is no doubt deserving of film-acting’s highest honor for his dead-on embodiment of a hedge-fund manager trying to keep his castle from crumbling.  When he meets his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) for a screaming match in Central Park, you will be convinced of this fact.  Watch also as Gere and Sarandon go for each other’s throats later in the film: dressed for another glamorous gala, Ellen is wielding a cocktail and divorce papers while husband Robert is still hiding the ribs he fractured and the forehead he sliced open during his auto accident.  Learning of Brooke’s disappointment in him, he informs Ellen: “The world is cold.”  Sarandon, dead-set on revenge, shoots back: “Then you’re going to need a warm coat.”

“The Master” (A; SEE IT)

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE, especially so in the dark and unsettling orbit of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest stroke of genius, “The Master,” which is a different animal altogether though its characters are driven by the same sins – greed, hubris, betrayal – that make “Arbitrage” crackle.  Anderson doesn’t so much make films as he explodes the limits of first-grade filmmaking.  His style zigzags from work to work – how can the neon lubes and lotions of “Boogie Nights” and the hot petrol that oozes through “There Will Be Blood” come from the same source? – but his six feature films are united by a detailed attention to American men living in extremis.  Anderson sees the silver screen as a dissection pan.  Think of Dirk Diggler, the porn god, Barry Egan, the neurotic collector of coupons, Edward L. Doheny, the ruthless oil tycoon, and now, Lancaster Dodd who – Tom Cruise, plug your ears – is some unauthorized version of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, with his pseudo-scientific, spiritual movement he calls the Cause.  He promises his followers paradise and perfection, but he’s probably just preying on their insecurities, and in Freddie Quell, he’s found a veritable wellspring of weaknesses to exploit and control.  He subjects Quell (who won’t, or can’t be, quelled) to “The Process,” a Q-and-A session in which subjects cannot blink or look away from their interrogator.  Laura Dern plays a wealthy benefactor who keeps Dodd’s boat afloat and, for a little while, above the law.

“The Master” is really a study of the disciple, Freddie, however.  After a brief hiatus from acting (and face-shaving), Joaquin Phoenix comes roaring back to the screen as the war-ravaged and shattered Freddie.  He looks markedly older than he did in 2005’s “Walk the Line,” and his face is a twisted wreck of anger and anguish.  Freddie is the id to Dodd’s super-ego: all animal, stinking of the alcoholic concoction he makes from paint thinner and cleaning supplies and looking for a fight as a department-store photographer.  He’s also a bully and in one confounding scene, strangles a man sitting for a portrait with his own necktie.  Anderson gives us the smiling faces of postwar American families, but this is not the America Freddie feels he can call home.  A military doctor, administering a Rorschach inkblot test – Freddie sees only sex and genitals – tells him presciently: There will be people “on the outside” who fail to understand you.

On the outside, he stumbles onto a cruise-liner and falls for Dodd, a figure of some sagacity but also somewhat sinister; he’s expertly rendered by the indomitable Philip Seymour Hoffman. I use the romantic “falls for” because the men’s relationship is another Rorschach test: you might see them as repressed lovers, frenemies, or even God and Lucifer locked in mortal conflict.  (The inclusion of the Irving Berlin song “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” from 1936, alerts us to the metaphysical conflict at the heart of “The Master.”)   As Dodd’s wife, Peggy, Amy Adams is on hand to temper the men’s feelings for each other.  In another strange scene, we see a heavily pregnant Peggy seated naked in a living room chair while her husband’s other female followers flit around the room, also nude, while the men of the Cause look on with without any sign of desire or emotion.  That’s because all of the emotion, all of the animal energy, is found in Freddie who becomes his master’s fiercest defender and bulldog.  Question the science of Dodd’s practices at a polite social gathering and you’ll have Freddie waiting out back to slap you around for your irreverance.  “You like be told what to do,” Dodd tells Freddie at one point, which, crucially, tells us that “The Master” is about what makes the cult of personality really click.  It’s the dissection of Freddie Quell, but also a study in group psychology and the unspoken laws that make masters of very few and slaves of us all.  In fact, watching “The Master” feels like psychotherapy: slow and uncomfortable at times.

But what really makes “The Master” a masterwork is that, like any lasting work of art, it’s not so much a film, but an outcry.