Movie Review: The Master
I’ve been obsessed with cults ever since I fled to my car during a three-day Landmark Forum course and had twelve messages from them waiting on my answering machine by the time I got home. I read everything I could about cults and found that the weekend course I had just attended was started by a man who used to study under L. Ron Hubbard. Then I started reading everything I could about Scientology, years before it was in vogue to do so. The Master is probably the most anticipated film of the year for me. Paul Thomas Anderson can deny it all he wants, but we all know that this film is a thinly veiled peek into the early days of Scientology.
I’m sorry to say that I was a little disappointed by the film. It’s tremendously strong in some respects, but I don’t think it is worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it. It’s downright dull by the second half. Despite my normal pre-screening precautions (no carbs, no sugar, lots of coffee) I had to pinch myself repeatedly to stay awake during the last thirty minutes. I’ve got the tiny bruises to prove it.
Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as Freddie Quell, a hot-tempered alcoholic with an unhealthy interest in sex. World War II has just ended, and Quell and his fellow navy sailors are having trouble acclimating back to the real world. During a classroom lecture, it is suggested that the men are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I’d hazard a guess that Quell was damaged goods long before he joined the navy. He fails miserably at several jobs, and spends much of his time mixing rancid alcohol potions derived from paint thinner and other toxic delights. One night he stows away on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who takes an interest in Quell and allows him to stay on the boat, luring him into the shady world of “The Cause”, Dodd’s pseudo-scientific road to enlightenment. According to Dodd, we are all trying to revert back to the perfect being, but we are hindered by episodes from past lives or childhood. Dodd’s special method of interrogation (referred to as processing) is supposed to expunge those harmful memories.
Dodd is chilling whenever he “processes” a subject. He asks the same questions over and over until his subject breaks down, either physically or emotionally. His methods are based on the belief that you must break someone down in order to build them back up. What’s truly disturbing about his treatment of Quell is the absolute arrogance and sense of entitlement on Dodd’s part. He has no hint of guilt about in using Quell as a guinea pig. Dodd is a smart, highly educated man. He has to know that Quell is not mentally stable, but he doesn’t care. How crazy is it to try to break down a man who is already broken, knowing there might be dire consequences?
Dodd and Quell have a love-hate relationship throughout the film. It’s not really sexual, but they are very attracted to one another. If they were a man and a woman, their relationship would be volatile and emotionally abusive. Instead, the two partake in constant power struggles and infantile behavior. Quell pouts and says he is going to leave, Dodd convinces him otherwise. They go through the same cycle time and time again, and that is where I find the flaw with the story. It never moves forward, it is stuck in stagnant water. The story could have been so much more. What prompted Lancaster to start “the cause”? Why does he so quickly let Quell ascend to right hand man in the movement? Why does Quell immediately believe in this garbage? Dodd’s own son tells Quell that his father is making everything up as he goes along.
Before you castigate me, make no mistake that The Master boasts some of the best performances of the year, hands down. Hoffman and Phoenix will likely be shoo-ins come Oscar time. They are a marvel to watch, but if you take these two actors out of the film, it rings pretty hollow. They are the movie. Another duo wouldn’t have fared as well. Amy Adams has little screen time, but she plays Dodd’s icy wife well. She almost comes across like a witch, especially when she tries to convince her husband that the movement must preemptively attack its detractors. She is deadly serious.
Anderson’s film looks great, and different sequences are interspersed with views of the churning blue waters left in the boat’s wake. It’s a beautiful little respite from the all the ugliness on the ship. Anderson once again features a jarring score, complete with plinks and blaring music sure to unhinge you a bit. The performances are well worth a watch, but I think the film will be more enjoyable if you are expecting a character study, not a sweeping story. Anderson has directed a solid film, but it is far from being one of my favorites.