P.T Anderson’s new flick, The Master, has been on a lot of most anticipated lists this year, partly because of Anderson’s stellar track record and auteur cred. But I think a lot of the buzz comes from the early indications that the film would contain an allegorical portrayal of L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of what would come to be known as Scientology. I think this gave a lot of people the idea that the film would be some kind of triumphant, allegorical slam on everyone’s favorite alien-worshipping nut-bars, and would be yet more validation for everyone who likes to point and laugh and the weirdos. Not that we need any validation, mind you, but people tend to enjoy being reminded of things they already believe.
Well, for those of you hoping The Master is a 90 minute long pie in the face for Scientology will be sorely disappointed. Those just looking for a well-acted, well filmed bit of cinema will find just that. Those looking for something that sustains engagement and interest will probably be most disappointed of all.
Starting at the beginning, our main character is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a former U.S seaman turned drifter, emotionally destroyed by the events of WW2 and permanently fried from years of consuming the kind of home-brewed hooch you make out of turpentine and drink only when you decide your liver is weighing you down and needs to be killed as soon as possible.
Quell’s life takes a turn when he falls in with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a quasi-religious self-help movement who claims he can bring about enlightenment and physical wellness through past-life regression. After bonding over some of Quell’s hooch, the two become friends and Quell becomes one of Dodd’s inner circle, to the dismay of Dodd’s family and followers, who seem to recognize more than Dodd that Quell is out of his damn mind. Dodd keeps him around despite the naysayers, and Quell becomes one of his more violent proponents, basically attacking anyone in the film who questions his new master.
Right from the start, there’s a lot of material for a good solid plot here. Perhaps it’ll be a story of a charismatic leader’s reputation brought low by overzealous followers. Or maybe the story of one who’s only real friend is a lowly drunkard, when everyone else is a blind yes-man who takes his every word as gospel. Maybe it’ll be an unconventional, controversial figure under assault by doubters and fear, who takes comfort in one good friend.
It could have been, but it isn’t. What it’s really about is up for debate, as once the film establishes the characters and relationships, it loses all forward momentum and becomes….*ahem*
Yes, you heard me, Anderson fanboys. This movie is capital B Boring. And what’s worse, it keeps acting like it’s gonna stop being boring. In the second half of the film, virtually every scene seems to contain the promise of some interesting plot development. In probably the film’s best scene, Dodd and a naysayer at a party engage in a heated debate over the validity of Dodd’s claims. Does the movie follow up, perhaps showing the continued doubters and detractors, and how Dodd begins to doubt his cause? No, no one ever really questions him again.
Later on the police show up and arrest Dodd. “Oh boy!” thought I “Now Johnny Law’s after them, and it’ll be about fighting persecution! Conflict! Yay!” But no, there’s one scene of him in jail and later a courtroom, but he never seems troubled again.
Maybe the conflict comes from the tension between Quell and the rest of Dodd’s group, who even suggest he may be a spy. Nope. They never confront Quell to his face, and he’s allowed to come and go as he likes.
And for most of the movie, we’re not even sure why Dodd keeps him around. His continual efforts to cure Quell of his alcoholism and inner turmoil meet with repeated failure. Do they at least have a strong, visible bond, a candid friendship and co-dependence? Nope.
The film seems to take an almost perverse glee in making like something interesting is gonna happen, and then refusing to follow through on it, like when I dangle a shoelace in front of my cat and yank it away before she can grab it. Unfortunately I can’t make use of my cat’s usual mode of revenge by taking a shit in Anderson’s bedroom.
And what almost makes it worse is that the rest of the movie is technically great. The camera work and visuals are beautiful, the cast and performances are all top-notch, with Academy Award nominations definitely in the cards for Hoffman and Phoenix, for those who give a shit about such things.
But all that doesn’t change the fact that the film is fucking boring. It has a million interesting things going on, but none of them seem to be what the film cares about, instead dwelling on Phoenix’s unlikeable character refusing to go through any kind of character growth, or hinting at a far more interesting side of Hoffman’s character that we never see enough of to be satisfied.
The film seems to become its own metaphor in one later scene where Dodd takes Quell and his followers out to the desert with a motorbike to play a game where one of them picks a spot in the distance, drives there as fast as they can, and come back. This is that film in a nutshell, but replace Dodd with Anderson himself and the motorcycle with a half-dead scooter, it’s rider whooping and smiling as though he’s on some great, life affirming blast as he putts along at a snail’s pace, going nowhere meaningful or interesting.