Can a movie that is, in parts, visually pleasing, with great performances, and reference an intriguing, powerful and controversial religious movement, be a failed movie on the whole? Yes. “The Master” via master film director, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights), fails to assemble all its beautiful parts into a thematic, cinematic whole.
The cinematography is excellent. Establishing shots do what they were meant to do but Anderson fails to leave well enough alone going even further, eventually crushing the movie-going experience with overly long establishing shots minus the mesmerizing cinematic beauty of say, Malick’s “Days of Heaven” or Minghella’s “The English Patient.” Without these directors’ sweeping panoramas, “The Master” could have saved the viewer’s soul by just getting its characters (in one transition) to the damn front door: Establish the scene with a wide shot of the house, cars of traveling congregants pulling to the curb then cut to the interior. The viewer gets the message. But to hold on to the wide shot, get the characters out of the cars, set the suitcases on the parkway and hugs all-round from wealthy host before strolling up the walkway to the inside is at best boring and at worst, indulgent. There is a belief around the industry (often unspoken, considering the political dynamics between directors and those in post-production) that a writer should not be allowed in the editing room where his/her work is being brought to life. But maybe these mind numbing, overly long shots were the actual intent of film editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty. Maybe. But doubtful.
“The Master” will and should get Oscar buzz. The actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, turn in riveting performances. Lancaster Dodd is the charismatic leader of the Cause. (“The Master” is loosely based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard). Hoffman’s Dodd forced me to forget the indulgence of the editing, captured as I was by his sonorous, patriarchal manner that invited me to be a part of his “Cause”. Like most charismatic leaders Dodd is quite full of himself and burying his writings in the desert was something akin to the elder Joseph Smith (Church of Latter Day Saints founder) translating scripture from buried ‘golden plates.” Dodd’s wealthy followers gladly fund his ‘process’ parties providing elegant food and shelter for their leader as they cling to their “master” and his self-styled scientific approach to personal happiness and fulfillment. Writer/director Anderson is on familiar ground with this ongoing theme of one’s search for meaning (Magnolia) and those leaders who are inclined to see these searchers as manna for their egos. Sadly, Lancaster Dodd is not allowed to take this menacing plot-strand to its ultimate potential.
Unlike Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is at once dangerous and unsympathetic. Phoenix ups his character’s ‘creep factor’ ten-fold with his continuously slouched posture suggesting a furtive and unhealthy lack of integrity. We first see Quell on a public beach simulating sex with a sand sculpture of a naked woman. If that doesn’t invite a review of one’s lunch then surely Quell’s hand digging sand out the sculpture’s vaginal area creating a more anatomically correct ‘woman’ will. Quell is emotionally lost and, after his stint in the navy during WW II, left to wander the country taking jobs as luck presents itself. Quell reenters the civilian working world as a hard-drinking, department store photographer with a veneer of civility that is easily cracked by the sobering dullness of his job. Quell’s alcoholism creates a hair-trigger anger that dooms this character to a life of hard labor until, running away from an angry group of migrant laborers, he spies Dodd’s yacht in a San Francisco harbor. It is here I wanted “The Master” to blossom with the intertwining stories of a creature looking for ‘god’ and a man willing, by necessity, to be that god. But no, what I witnessed was a meandering plot line that did not want (out of fear?) to make Lancaster Dodd the vile, manipulative megalomaniac that comes with the territory of a 20th century charismatic cult leader. Director Anderson shows Dodd as sympathetic, even loving the unlovable drunk that is Freddie Quell. Yes, there is the hint of scandal in Dodd’s arrest for, ostensibly, defrauding rich patrons but that plot line is left hanging. The viewer never learns the truth behind his arrest and quick bail. In fact, that scene serves only to strengthen the viewer’s sympathy for Dodd as he professes to Quell that he (Dodd) is the only one who likes him. It is hard to understand why Dodd likes Quell even as he drinks the ‘delicious’ paint thinner-laden alcoholic drinks Quell concocts. In fact, alcoholic mixtures of whatever is horribly available seems to be the only talent Quell can bring to Dodd’s empire. But, Dodd works hard to change the angry ways of his latest acolyte via a suspiciously unscientific method of having Quell walk back and forth from wall to window as the rest of the followers look on until at the end of one session (and the viewer’s emotional rope) Dodd simply says stop. I wanted to scream, “why?” There was not enough space to tread in that dinning room to quell the demons of Freddie Quell. And even this did not kill Quell’s willingness to maim those who found themselves in Dodd’s presence brave enough to express doubt. By the movie’s end I thought Freddie’s liver would get screen credit for the abuse it received. If not screen credit then surely the disclaimer; no liver was harmed in the making of this movie.
Overall, the acting in “The Master” was superb. I was quite fearful of Freddie Quell’s authenticity and endeared to the calm veneer of Dodd’s easily cracked belief system. But, there is only so much actors can do for a script with no centralized conflict. Truth be told, it was Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s wife who could have provided the evil Shakespearean fulcrum from which to launch the vile net of emotional imprisonment. But, again Anderson skirts the potential for more cinematic substance. Suffice it to say, I came to the end of “The Master” appreciative of the acting but unimpressed with this 2 ¼ hour movie that could have lost 20 minutes and benefited by the tightening, redirection of stray plot lines and a more fearless director.