Master, The (United States, 2012)

September 14, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Master, The Poster

The Master is one of the most technically impressive films of 2012. It is the work of an artist; every shot is carefully composed. The set design, which recreates post-World War II America, is impeccable. The acting of the leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is without peer. The cinematography, the purview of Mihai Malaimare Jr., represents the first time 65mm has been used since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Yet, for all of The Master's laudable elements, it falls short of greatness for one simple reason: the storytelling is unspectacular. The slowly paced narrative is less engaging than one might suppose from the premise and the characters, although providing Phoenix and Hoffman with plenty of opportunities to display their talent, are not deeply drawn.

It has been widely reported, and even acknowledged by Paul Thomas Anderson, that L. Ron Hubbard was an inspiration for the character of Lancaster Dodd (played by Hoffman). This has led to speculation that The Master is an expose of Scientology. While there are similarities between the real-life religion and the fictitious cult of The Master, the movie is not about the development of Hubbard's organization. In fact, the film isn't really about Hubbard/Dodd at all. Instead, it focuses on Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a G.I. who has been psychologically damaged by his participation in World War II and returns home without prospects or plans for a future. He becomes enmeshed in Dodd's group of fanatical followers when he drunkenly stumbles aboard the boat where "The Master" is marrying his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childrs), to true believer Clark (Remi Malek). Freddie quickly rises through the ranks, becoming Dodd's right-hand man, but his problems - alcoholism and a hair-trigger temper - are not resolved by Dodd's pseudo-psychology. He remains a deeply disturbed individual and Dodd's inability to "cure" him causes several of those in The Master's inner circle, including his wife (Amy Adams), to question whether Freddie should be cast out.

Much of The Master is about the dynamic between Freddie and Lancaster, which turns out to be a one-way street. Lancaster's influence on the psychologically tortured ex-GI is profound and pernicious. However, Freddie's sole impact on Lancaster is to represent a failure of The Master's "process" and, as such, someone best discarded. Many of the one-on-one scenes with Hoffman and Phoenix crackle with energy. These two are so compelling when sharing the screen that the movie suffers when one or the other is missing. The jail cell sequence represents the pinnacle of these scenes, but there are numerous others that could be cited as examples.

Anderson's intent is a condemnation of cults in particular and perhaps religion in general. He illustrates the flawed and crumbling foundation upon which "The Cause" is built. The final scene drives home a message: people are better off when freed from the compulsion of following a charismatic leader. Martha Marcy May Marlene said something similar, albeit with a different sort of character and a great deal more tension and narrative momentum. If Scientologists are displeased with The Master, there is a reason: any connection to Hubbard, however tangential, spins certain lines of dialogue to sound like denunciations. At one time, a character accuses Lancaster of "making all this up as he goes along," a charge often leveled at Hubbard during the formative years of Scientology.

The Master is about character interaction, not character development. Lancaster remains a cipher. We learn little about his past and don't get a real sense of whether he even believes everything he says. We see his powers of persuasion, his ability to charm like a snake oil salesman, and his occasional bursts of rage. There are times when he appears to be his wife's puppet and other occasions when he overrides and dismisses her. We understand Freddie better, because he is given a back story, but his personality is immutable. However, that's part of Anderson's intent - to show forcefully how Lancaster's "processing" fails. Freddie's point-of-view provides our portal into the story. Fantasy sequences and dreams intermix with reality and, at times, we're not certain what's real and what isn't. It's easy enough to figure out in the case of the "nude party" but not so clear-cut when it comes to Freddie's (second) visit to the home of his ex-girlfriend.

There's little doubt Philip Seymour Hoffman will get Oscar consideration for his performance here. It's the kind of showy role that often catches the Academy's attention. He's very good as Lancaster but this is neither the most challenging nor the most powerful performance of his career. Hoffman has become a little like Meryl Streep - he's so good in everything he does that it's sometimes difficult to discern the truly great portrayals from those that are "merely" very good.

The true acting standout is Joaquin Phoenix, who has risen like his namesake from the ashes of a curious phase/hoax/whatever. To portray Freddie, he has undergone a physical transformation almost as complete as Christian Bale's in The Machinist. Gaunt, sick-looking, with stooped shoulders and a shambling gait, Phoenix buries himself in Freddie's persona and there's never a moment when we disbelieve him. The tendency with a performance like this is to go over-the-top but Phoenix is contained and the scenes in which Freddie loses control are forceful but never cartoonish.

Amy Adams probably won't get much mention in discussing The Master's acting; her performance is low-key and her character exists in the shadows, but her interpretation of Mary Sue Dodd is creepy. Outwardly a submissive wife (who is pregnant throughout much of the movie), there's more to Mary Sue than meets the eye and we occasionally wonder if she's the puppeteer manipulating Lancaster's strings. There are two disturbing scenes featuring her: one in which she reads from a pornographic story and relishes the profanity she spews and another in which she vigorously masturbates Lancaster. Adams plays these scenes (and others) with an intensity that is almost disturbing.

The Master progresses without forging an emotional link between the audience and anyone or anything on screen. Anderson's style, while visually and intellectually engaging, is clinical and distancing. It is, at times, reminiscent of how Terrence Malick makes films. Despite this - or perhaps because of it - the film leaves an indelible imprint, a haunting afterimage that is hard to shake. Some will undoubtedly label this as a masterpiece and the Oscar buzz at the time of its release (not necessarily the same thing as in January) is deafening. Although it's impossible to deny The Master's artistry, my preference when it comes to great movies is for the story to be as rich and satisfying as all the other elements, and that's not the experience I had with this film. It's overlong and a little sluggish and the electricity generated when Hoffman and Phoenix interact does not carry through the rest of the production. There's much of value here, but this is at heart an art film, and is more likely to confound and bore mainstream viewers than enthrall them.

Master, The (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: 2012-09-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1