Guest Movie Review: The Master
If you have both an interest in movies and a pulse, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard a lot about The Master the past few weeks, and for good reason. It’s the sixth film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who with Magnolia, Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood on his resume is considered one of our greatest living directors. That alone would make it guarantee hype, but then you add speculation that the film’s religious group – around which most of the story takes place – is in a shabbily-disguised copy of Scientology, created by author L. Ron Hubbard in the fifties and notoriously touchy. Though the Church of Scientology has believers around the planet, plenty of non-believers look at the mysterious, controversial pseudo-religion with suspicion. That suspicion isn’t helped by all the scandals that dog Scientology, whether they be political crimes, fundamentally odd practices or high-profile gaffes. Of celebrities they have no shortage either, a side effect of locating their main headquarters so close to Los Angeles. However, rarely does it seem that this public presence has any advantage; the church gains little positive press but gets all the attention when one of their celebs goes wild, such as the marriage/divorce of famous Scientologist Tom Cruise and non-initiate wife Katie Holmes. So Anderson has plenty of instant notoriety to gain by parodying the Scientologists – but I was more interested in whether his piece made for a quality piece of filmmaking.
Anderson certainly brings his deft artistic lens into his latest effort; from The Master’s first scene, the director’s masterful camera manipulation perfectly captures a post-WWII America trying to find its way, just as the character of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) attempts to settle into place after serving in the Navy during the war. A sufferer of post-traumatic stress, Freddie has difficulty maintaining composure, vacillating between contentedness and anger in swift moments, often resulting in drunken episodes and fights, as he is unable to cope with the things he has witnessed. Randomly, he finds himself in the presence of author and intellectual Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the self-proclaimed “Master” and leader of the philosophical movement known as The Cause. Lancaster sees potential in Freddie, adopting him as his “guinea pig and protégé”, studying and perfecting his “audits” on the war veteran in an attempt to heal his ailments and reintegrate him into society. The Cause has many detractors, many of whom would see Lancaster Dodd put in prison or worse, but he and his family and followers persevere. However, Freddie’s condition fails to improve and his faith in Lancaster begins to splinter, while the Dodd family begins to believe that the damaged man they have taken in might be beyond their ability to help.
There isn’t anything in the narrative of The Master that matches the intensity or drama of many of Anderson’s previous works, but the movie still manages to arrest your attention on more than one occasion, most notably any scene pairing Freddie and Lancaster. In rapidly-paced sequences, Lancaster disassembles Freddie’s mental defenses and forces him to confront the man that he is. These scenes are intensely personal, revealing Freddie as a severely scarred individual with more than a few demons in his closet – and they do an amazing job of showing just how charismatic and in control Lancaster Dodds is. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most talented actors in the world; here his work is so subtle it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes his performance so good – good, yet not surprising: whatever wild-card element a Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, can bring to his performances is missing from Hoffman here.
If there’s anyone here who doesn’t overly rely to their natural ability, it’s got to be Amy Adams as Lancaster’s young, powerful wife Peggy. In many of her films, she tends to lend mainly a bubbly personality, making her performances feel more natural. Not so here, where she plays a woman who can be the pretty young wife one moment and a ferocious commander the next. Peggy represents the more aggressive side of the Cause; she is tired of being marginalized by people and governments alike, arguing to fight more openly for acceptance. She also shows on more than one occasion her dominance over Lancaster, making you wonder who’s the real force behind the movement. Other actors play the Dodds’ supporters, and Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers and Jesse Plemons do their own thing in moving the story forward. The contributions of each are sadly limited, taking a back seat to talent and charisma of the leads.
Unfortunately, that leads us to a central problem of The Master: Joaquin Phoenix. I’ve got two issues with Phoenix’s portrayal of Freddie, the first being his inconsistent performance. At many points it’s impressive: his posture alone, a menacing slouch that seems to unconsciously rebel against his recent military employment, and his ability to emote through subtle facial expressions – this stuff is better than any Phoenix performance I can recall. But it’s consistently derailed by his subpar vocalizations and constant mumbling. When he’s comprehensible, he’s perfect. But half of the time he’s worse than Bane in the last Batman flick. My second issue is with Freddie himself. I’m supposed to feel sorry and hopeful for a man whose life has been a constant struggle to find meaning. But Freddie Quell is a churlish brute, a sexual deviant – little more than a monster in human skin. He lashes out at others with little or no provocation, has no compassion, and shows little indication that he was any better before the war. That any of the other characters would find this guy at all attractive or interesting is just unbelievable – yet woman want to share his bed, and Lancaster is convinced he is worth something. It’s a major stumbling block: how can we use this character as our view into the Cause if we can’t stand the sight of him?
Speaking of The Cause: if Anderson didn’t want to risk angering Scientologists, he should have changed more than just the major names involved. Just like the church Hubbard founded, The Master’s central organization begins in the early 1950’s, believes in past and future lives, and fiercely protects itself from outside criticisms. It’s fairly obvious that Lancaster Dodd is L. Ron Hubbard, with Anderson’s copy so specific as to include the Scientology founder’s love of boats and motorcycles, and having his masterpiece The Cause being extremely similar to Hubbard’s best-selling Dianetics. Anderson at least attempts to portray the group in a mostly neutral light,but he still has characters admitting that Dodd is “making all this up as he goes along.”
Still, while Hollywood Scientologists might steam over the portrayal of their belief system (and may indeed stand together to snub the movie come Oscar time), the truth is that The Master is not about them. Anderson could have made more of an effort to disguise the cult itself, but the story is about Freddie Quell and his journey, which just happens to involve The Cause. The lack of a sympathetic lead curtails Anderson’s narrative, but The Master is one of those few films in which your opinion will gradually adjust long after the closing credits have run. While most movies can be summed up almost immediately and left alone, The Master constantly challenges you to think about what has happened to Freddie and Lancaster, as well as what will happen after their story is done. In that – in involving us – Anderson has been absolutely successful. But without one standout performance, The Master is more hype than execution, a remarkable if not particularly impressive display of moviemaking.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. He posts most of his film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, if you’re interested.