Watching “The Master”
Many people believe that Martin Scorsese is the best living American director, but I generally go with Paul Thomas Anderson, the auteur behind such contemporary classics as “Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood” and, yes, the Adam Sandler vehicle “Punch-Drunk Love.” Anderson is not a prolific filmmaker, and a new PTA film is a relatively rare event. But when each film is a masterpiece, or a near masterpiece, it seems churlish to complain about Anderson’s productivity.
I’ve grown so accustomed to loving Anderson’s films that I fully expected to love his new film, “The Master.” Which is why it pains me to report that “The Master” is disappointing — that it’s a good movie, but not a great one, full of astonishing, provocative imagery and terrific performances, yet ultimately disappointing.
The film tells the story of a traumatized World War II veteran and alcoholic named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who stows away on a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and falls under his spell. Anderson based the character of Dodd on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and “The Master” depicts the early days of the movement, here renamed The Cause. Based on this information, I was expecting a probing, nervy look at the birth of a cult, which might explain why I was so surprised to discover that “The Master” is less about an exploitative quasi-religion and the damage it inflicts on wayward souls than the battle of wills between two men, Quell and Dodd.
I’ll admit that I’m biased: Cults interest me, and I was excited to see how a gifted director like Anderson would portray the twisted dynamics that are an intrinsic part of such communities. And he doesn’t really do this. Which doesn’t mean that “The Master” is a bad movie. It’s just a different film than the one I was hoping to see.
(The 1981 film “Ticket to Heaven” offers a pretty incisive look at cult dynamics, but the filmmaking is pretty pedestrian, giving the film an after-school special sort of feel.)
“The Master” feels a bit like the next logical step for the director behind “There Will Be Blood,” which explored the bitter rivalry between a phony preacher and a soulless oilman. Like “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” centers on the rivalry and brotherly relationship between a lost soul and a religious crackpot, and the scenes that work best show the methods by which Dodd attempts to indoctrinate Quell. One of the best scenes depicts Dodd asking Quell a series of extremely personal questions, and warning him that if he blinks, he’ll start over (a technique similar to the auditing of Scientology). Another good sequence shows Dodd forcing Quell to walk back and forth between a window and a wall for a very long period of time in front of a group of adherents — the sort of repetitive, exhausting activity that cults use to break the wills of their members.
All of these scenes are well-acted, well-composed and beautiful to behold — the period detail is rich and immersive, and Anderson raises interesting, thorny questions. Take Dodd’s wife, Peggy, (a quietly terrific Amy Adams). Is she a homemaker who supports her husband, or a more Lady Macbeth-type figure? What exactly is her influence on Dodd’s work? The sexual obsessions of the film’s main characters are also interesting to ponder. Is Freddie capable of acting on anything but the basest of desires? Does Dodd sometimes wish he was a bit more like Freddie, who seems, at times, like the more buttoned-up Dodd’s rampaging id.
My biggest problem with “The Master” lies with Freddie, who seems less like a character than a collection of tics. I never really understood his motivation for doing anything, and when he SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! breaks free of Dodd’s grip, riding away on a motorcycle and stranding Dodd in the desert, I was baffled. I didn’t understand why he suddenly left The Cause, what had triggered his decision, if anything.
(Check out the 2011 film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to get a sense of just how difficult it can be to leave a cult — a reality that “The Master” barely touches.)
I’m fine with ambiguity, and I don’t want Anderson to spell everything out in dialogue, but Freddie just wasn’t a very believable character for me, and Dodd’s obsession with him wasn’t particularly believable, either. Phoenix’s performance felt a little too mannered to me, but Hoffman is excellent, as usual, and should be a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination.
Which brings me back to my initial complaint about “The Master” — that it eschews cult dynamics for a battle-of-wills between two men. It isn’t fair to criticize Anderson for not making the film I wanted him to make, but I do question why he drew upon Scientology for inspiration if he wasn’t willing to delve inner workings and secrets of a Scientology-like group. (And, no, I am not faulting him for not making an expose, or a more factual film.) The glimpses we get of how The Cause works are fascinating, but they’re too few and far between — if you didn’t know “The Master” was based on Scientology going in, you might wonder what the fuss is all about.
Even so, a disappointing Anderson picture is still better than most of what’s out there, and “The Master” is definitely worth checking out.
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