A film review by Craig J. Koban October 9, 2012

THE MASTER jj
 

2012, R, 136 mins.

 

Lancaster Dodd: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Freddie Quell: Joaquin Phoenix / Peggy: Amy Adams / Helen: Laura Dern / John: Christopher Evan Welch / Mildred: Patty McCormack

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

 

 

There is very little doubt that THE MASTER – the sixth film from the limitlessly talented 42-year-old writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson – is a work that has the elements of a masterful drama.  It’s contains impeccable, Oscar nomination worthy performances, bravura period specific production design, a haunting and lingering music score, and a virtuoso command of the technical aspects of the filmmaking craft.  On a superficial level, THE MASTER is a film of great and unrivalled artistry.  

Yet, for as visually engaging and as thanklessly strong as the actors are here, I found THE MASTER to be dramatically and emotionally hollow and lacking.  Anderson has already proven himself to be one of the most gifted directorial auteurs of the last 15 years (BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA remain two of the finest films of the 1990’s) and certainly has little to prove, but his trademark discipline seems to be missing this go-around.  THE MASTER is a film that’s perhaps too leisurely and scattershot with its first act (it takes a long time to build to something) and then progresses to be a ponderous and ill-focused effort throughout the remainder of its already long 136 minutes.  What emerges is a cinematic enigma, a jigsaw puzzle that Anderson tries to piece together to form a coherent and cohesive whole, only to be missing key pieces to finish and keep it together.  There’s ample audacity, ambition, and raw filmmaking bravado on display here, but the film’s story and themes lack the exactitude of its technical merits.  As a result, THE MASTER left me feeling cold and empty. 

Much has been said that the film – a reported 12-plus year passion project for Anderson – is a thinly veiled commentary on the Church of Scientology and its founder (L. Ron Hubbard) in the way it deals with a fictitious religion that bares startling similarities to the real-life religion (more on that in a bit).  The film, however, is more centered on a World War II-era G.I. named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) that struggles to make a life for himself on and off duty.  Clearly, he’s damaged psychological goods because of the ravages of war, but he also has an unhealthy predilection – an almost adolescent one – towards women and sex and, worst of all, he’s a chronic alcoholic.  So awful and self-abusing is his addiction to booze that the first thing he does when it’s announced that the war has ended in the Pacific is head down to the torpedo bay of the ship he’s stationed on and drain its fuel so he can make some home-made brew.   

 

 

Freddie seems to have skills as a photographer, but he loses his post-war job as a portrait taker at a department retail store and finds himself as a migrant worker in a Californian cabbage field.  While there he makes moonshine utilizing all kinds of products that would essentially be poison if consumed on their own.  He makes one cocktail for a fellow worker that nearly kills him, after which he finds himself fleeing from the scene and eventually making it to San Francisco, where he finds a yacht and stows away on the ship.  The boat in question is headed up by a self-made man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose daughter is about to be married on board.  To Freddie’s surprise, just about everyone – including Dodd himself – welcomes him with open arms. 

Slowly but surely, Freddie learns more about Dodd, a man that is, by his own description, “A writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher…a hopelessly inquisitive man.”  He also is the spiritual leader of a new pseudo-psychological religion called “The Cause” (which, again, bares many correlations to Hubbard’s Scientology and his book on Dianetics).  Dodd takes a liking to the deeply troubled Freddie, perhaps believing that he can use the Cause to heal his emotional wounds, and he ends up recruiting Freddie to join his cause and help spread his word.  However, the deeper Freddie finds himself within Dodd’s inner circle, the more his past and current penchant for alcohol - and overall mental instability - makes him a threat to Dodd’s mission. 

Of THE MASTER’s chief virtues is its overall visual tapestry: This is one of the finest looking films of 2012, thanks largely Anderson’s decision to shoot the film in 65mm (blown up to 70mm), the first one since 1996’s HAMLET to be filmed in such a manner.  Using the remarkable clarity, depth of field, and meticulous detail of the larger negative format, Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare create a film canvas of tremendous and beguiling beauty.  Capping off the film’s exhilarating big-screen tableau is the wondrous period production design, which flawlessly evokes the film’s post-War times with immaculate verisimilitude.  You truly feel a part of the film’s time and setting.  Further complimenting this is the omnipotent musical cords of THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s composer Jonny Greenwood, who gives the film an overcoat of ominous intrigue.   

You’re likely not going to find better performances in a film all year than what’s on display here.  Hoffman is as stellar as always playing Dodd as a man of almost mechanized calmness and soft-spoken conviction, suggesting an authoritative, confident, and caring man of his people that also, deep down, just may be a cheap, two-bit hustler.  Two other performances stand out more, though, the first being from Phoenix (looking unhealthily emaciated, pale skinned, and lurching with a grimacing hunchback-like stupor) that is so scarily authentic playing Freddie as a drifter that’s being plagued by his own inner self-destruction.  His volcanic, tour de force performance of angst, despair, and deep regret will have Oscar voters buzzing, as I think a smaller, but equally crucial performance by Amy Adams (as Dodd’s apparently obedient wife) will.  Adams is a sly actress that may have more up her sleeve than she initially lets on with her character, as she gives the film’s most challenging and deceptively low-key performance. 

Ultimately, though, THE MASTER falters greatly in terms of what it’s trying to be...about.  At times, Anderson can’t seem to decide whether his story is about Freddie’s long-gestating personal implosion or Dodd or the Cause or the freakish father/son bond between Dodd and Freddie or a combination of all four entities.  There are too many threads vying for attention here, all of which progress through the narrative to the point where audiences will have great difficult processing an emotional tie to anyone or anything in the film.  Too much of the plot fumbles with fits and starts, whereas many other scenes seem to go on forever without actually building to a dramatically rewarding crescendo. 

Also, just consider Dodd and the Cause.  Firstly, THE MASTER does not really invest in exploring its faux-religion in any thoroughly compelling manner, nor does it seem to ever create contemplative or intriguing ties – other than obvious ones - with the real Church of Scientology.  Dodd on paper is almost frustratingly undefined and lacking development in the film; we never truly gain a sense of what really makes him tick, nor do we get a firm bearing on where he came from, how he came to be, and where his true powers reside in his family of followers.  His wife, for example, is often shown as a submissively obedient slave to his influence and teachings and then, at other times in the film, seems to demonstrate puppet-master-like authority over Dodd.  The husband/wife relationship arc here seems inconsistently rendered. 

The thematic concepts of the film seem equally dicey.  Does the Dodd/Freddie (master/disciple) relationship expose the frailty of damaged egos and how they are so easily duped into believing any charismatic authority figure, no matter what message he preaches?  Is the film primarily invested in Dodd's maniacal self-delusions of grandeur and how his self-made religious empire speaks towards the American psyche and its endless yearning to be wealthy, powerful, and heard?  And what of the Dodd’s seemingly ridiculous Cause theories that, for example, preach towards how everyone on Earth can trace their past lives back trillions of years.  There are only a few times in the film when people ever legitimately call him out on it. I’m still left wondering what Anderson feels regarding all of this:  Is he pro or anti-religion, for or against real-life religions like Scientology, or does he have a misplaced level of respect for just how powerful figures like Dodd become via the power of their own words and beliefs?   

THE MASTER is not a bad film, but rather a misshapen and far too dramatically and thematically convoluted one that left me puzzled.  Again, it contains the stuff that Oscar voters pine for – tremendous performances, stirring cinematography, unimpeachable art direction and period décor – but the finer aspects that make great films great are genuinely lacking here.  Anderson’s handling of the story is almost opaque, cold, and distancing when it should intrigue and hypnotically lure us into it.  It’s not that THE MASTER is not enthralling in parts, and Anderson certainly remains a hot-blooded and fearlessly intrepid filmmaker.  Yet, the film is kind of like the Cause itself; I’m just not sure that I’m willing to ravenously drink its Kool-aid and be a rapid believer in it. 

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