Last Sunday afternoon, I had one of those experiences in a cinema that sometimes happens when a famous and well-regarded director makes a big film about a tough subject. My friend and I arrived with high expectations and saw a film that is gorgeous, thought-provoking, wonderfully acted and ultimately disappointing.
In THE MASTER, director Paul Thomas Anderson ( Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) takes on the American fascination with and devotion to quasi-religious cults. What creates the mental and spiritual void in some of the most
privileged people on Earth that allows them to became sucked in by charismatic charlatans time and time again? What kind of narcissistic swindler
manipulates the emptiness and longings of his fellow humans for his own
sexual and monetary gain by setting himself up as a demi-god with
answers to unanswerable questions?
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a drunken sailor home from the war with mental health issues, advanced alcoholism, frustrated sexual desires and a hairpin temper. Phoenix gives an achingly brilliant portrayal of a man who is in turns both affecting and terrifying. He's at sea: drowning in a toxic soup of rage, sexual frustration and existential loneliness he seems powerless to escape.
After being fired from one job as a department store photographer and fleeing another after murdering a man with bad homemade alcohol, Quell stows away on a pleasure boat where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the finest performances in his stellar career) who offers him a father figure in an ersatz family of souls adrift. Drawn into his quasi-religious cult that offers people a chance to redeem both their present and their past lives through a system of brain-washing called "processing" Freddie becomes both a defender of the faith and a fish caught in a net he neither understands or is able to escape.
Dodds is as full of rage and repressed desire as his protege, Freddie. In the end the Master is as much a slave to denial and carnality as any of his followers.
Men wrestling with
each other occurs over and over in the film. It is his repressed
homosexuality Dodds is really trying to come to grips with as he
swindles women so he can hang out with men. His wife (a terrific Amy Adams) gets who is but desires the facade of the 50s marriage and status it confers too much to accept the truth about her husband in any real way.
There is a beautiful recurring image in the film of wake churning up
behind the boat. It evokes all kinds of things: floating hearts,
Rosarch blots, the nebulous dreams and desires that churn up in the wake
consciousness. The film is lovely to look. The quality of the
performances give it moments of great emotional resonance.
The problem with THE MASTER isn't the subject matter, which is
intriguing especially given Hollywood's love of Scientology, The Work,
twelve-step meetings and all manner of quasi-spiritual psychic cure
alls. It isn't the acting, which is stellar or the cinematography or
the compelling score. It's not that Anderson has nothing to say, he does: about the effect of the war on men who came home from it lost and psychically damaged, about alcoholism, about fantasy and longing and desire and repression, about the emptiness of the lives of people who want for nothing material and live in a spiritual and emotional vacuum.
Like his antagonist Dodds, I felt that Anderson was making it up as he went along with no clear picture of where he wanted to end up. He too has a position to maintain as a great commentator on American mores. This time however, like the cult followers he's trying to portray, he has foundered and lost his way.
I can't agree with the critics who have said Anderson offers no easy
answers or fails to spoon-feed the audience and tell them what to think. He clearly understood the interior lives of his characters and the
environment that created them but he hadn't figured out the story he
wanted to tell with them. The problem with THE MASTER is Anderson doesn't know what he thinks.
In the end, THE MASTER is as frustrating and slippery as the leader of the cult it is ostensibly about.Go for the acting but don't expect to be compelled by the story.