Let me first preface my review by saying, I am a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood: I’ve found something interesting in everything he’s ever done. Needless to say my expectations for his latest opus, The Master, were high. Unfortunately I’m sad to report, this production is a distinctly unenjoyable chore to watch.
The Master features a narrative that is dramatically inert, offering a very weak storyline about how a drifter fell into a religious sect. Lancaster Dodd is their questionable leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. On paper that could have been the searing portrait of a svengali and his followers. But the script doesn’t attempt anything daring. Instead we get relaxed shots of water around a ship, a motorcycle speeding through the desert, people listening to but not interacting with the leader. We’re never given much proof as to why he has a following. He doesn’t even have anything particularly interesting to say. This is especially problematic in a film depicting a charismatic guide. Just how far his reach is outside this small circle of friends is never depicted but Lancaster doesn’t seem to engender much devotion even among these people. He isn’t especially appealing or seem to really improve anyone’s life. Even his own son admits he just makes it up as he goes along. One poor soul who does respond to his organization is Freddie Quell.
There is not one engaging character for the audience to get behind and champion. Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, an aimless drifter, mentally consumed by two pursuits, alcohol and sexual desire. The plot drifts along showing us Joaquin Phoenix acting bizarre. The actor is all angles twisting his body into contorting shapes ostensibly to show us how odd he is. He keeps one eye closed throughout the picture in a facial squint that recalls Robin Williams in the movie Popeye. It’s an off putting performance. We cannot possibly identify with him, nor do we feel sorry for him. He’s too repellant . It simply makes the movie a difficult experience to endure. He creates a female figure out of sand at the beach and simulates sex with thrusting motions. He manufactures alcoholic drinks out of household products like paint thinner and Lysol. He’s both physically and intellectually ugly. Then there’s Lancaster Dodd, the proverbial “master” of the film. He’s sort of a self styled guru in charge of a small flock that follow him. He’s written a book entitled “The Cause” which is a Bible of sorts for his faith based organization. Yet we have no concept of how many people actually subscribe to his beliefs. As presented here it’s an intimate circle, an insignificant number of people. Most of the plot focuses on the relationship between these two men. Freddie is so mentally messed up, we’re to accept that at least under Lancaster’s guidance, he has instilled a sense of purpose in the wayward creature. He becomes his right hand man willing to beat up anyone who dares disagree with Lancaster’s views. But we’re never given a reason why Freddie is so impressed by him. Without that reason the justification for the story falls apart.
The heart of the movie is the dialogue between teacher Lancaster Dodd and student Freddie Quell who becomes a guinea pig for the studies he’s conducting. Lancaster repeatedly asks him the same questions over and over. The stated goal is to “bring man back to his inherent state of perfect.” But how are these exercises supposed to accomplish this? It’s never quite clear or explained. The same question is put forth over and over to Quell in repetition. Don’t blink or we’ll start again at the beginning he instructs. Ok, But what’s the point? The exercises are a tedious chore for the audience. Sound boring? How about watching Joaquin Phoenix fling himself from one side of a room to touch a wall and then fling himself back to touch a window. Over and over, back and forth. How does this elucidate our understanding of this group? These ambiguous scenes promise to have a payoff that will clarify their point. But this payoff never arrives.
In the end it’s not clear what the movie is trying to say. It’s weird for the sake of being weird. Pretentious and shallow, the script lazily presents scenes seemingly without focus. They wander directionless with no discernable point. One scene gave me hope. At a party as the leader is pontificating his views to onlookers, one man speaks up and questions his beliefs. He brings up the word cult. But Lancaster shouts back, well you’ve already made up your mind so no reason to explain. No, please explain! That could have been a fascinating discourse on the nature of cult vs. religion but the screenwriters shirk any responsibly to get deep and a perfect opportunity is wasted. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has acknowledged that his drama is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology. Regardless of your opinions of that religion, even its detractors would at least have to admit that it has galvanized a gathering of dedicated followers with the promise of improving your life. That is not the case here. The leader isn’t very charismatic nor is he even outrageous or dangerous. He’s just some guy that has captured the interest of a small group, some of which follow him and others privately talk negatively about. It is never demonstrated why Freddie is so taken with his teachings. Without that basis, nothing holds together. If Anderson has accomplished anything, it’s that has he has shot a lushly photographed film in 65mm, highlighted by some beautifully composed scenes. The production design is admirable as well. It would make a nice coffee table book. The actors do their best to bring life to a directionless, meandering script, but ultimately The Master is just a bunch of pictures in search of a point.