The Master *** (out of five)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s cerebral new movie The Master is beautifully shot and crafted, with sublime period production design and a fascinating, unusual music score by Jonny Greenwood. It features big, powerhouse performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and a surprising, spooky one from Amy Adams. It is also at times almost provocatively undramatic, which results in the two hour and fourteen minute film feeling ponderous, sluggish and, at its worst, pretentious and indulgent.
That’s a shame because the subject matter is rich. Set immediately following the second world war and up to 1950 in the United States, The Master charts the early days of a growing cult that is very obviously inspired by Scientology (while not being about Scientology precisely). The L. Ron Hubbard character is here called Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who is obviously a charlatan but may or may not believe his own pronouncements, which include believing in past lives extending back trillions of years. The audience’s point of entry into this world is Freddie (Phoenix), a very troubled young veteran who mixes up a mean brand of personal moonshine. When Freddie stows away on a ship being used by Dodd and his close followers, his troubles and his moonshine attract Dodd, who wants to solve the former and imbibe the latter. Solving Freddie’s troubles involves using “The Cause”’s methodology of “processing” (obviously based on Scientology’s “auditing”) and once Freddie tries it, he’s hooked. The men develop a co-dependent relationship, the course of which forms the vast bulk of the movie.
Phoenix’s performance is bold and theatrical, and for my mind over the top, encompassing all manner of physical mannerisms including a snarl and what seems like a sunken chest, which gives the impression, at times, of Freddie being a hunchback. It robs some of the attention you feel should be focused on Hoffman, who is, after all, The Master. Hoffman has worked with Anderson in two of his five previous films and it feels like here he was being given his big, flashy role – the equivalent of Daniel Day-Lewis’ in There Will Be Blood – only to have Phoenix come along and steal all the Oscar talk.
The Master is an intriguing work of the imagination that suffers from divided loyalties. On the one hand, the way a cult grew in post-war America among affluent, educated people is fascinating; on the other, the relationship between Freddie and Dodd is examined in so much depth as to become repetitive and annoying. I found it the least accessible of Anderson’s films, and the least enjoyable, but it’s intelligent and original enough for him to remain a “must-see” director. Although I was at times bored and frustrated, I certainly don’t regret seeing it.