‘The Master’

September 30, 2012

In The Master, Freddie, a disturbed drifter fresh from World War II (played by Joaquin Phoenix) meets Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a quasi-religious sect called The Cause. Freddie is a stowaway on a Dodd boat hired for the wedding of his daughter, and soon the pair enter into a strange co-dependent relationship that forms the core of the film. Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his best performances, inhabiting the role deeply as Freddie slumps and lunges his way through drunken binges and doomed romances. Hoffman is also excellent as the charming and megalomaniacal Dodd, whose technique echoes New Age gurus and cults.

Dodd speaks in cryptic and pseudoscientific terms about past lives, issuing vague and banal self-help truths masquerading as profound cosmic wisdom about creating your own reality (not unlike the best-seller The Secret). A few people see through Dodd's bluster of bullshit, but these token skeptics are summarily silenced (sometimes violently), and even doubting members of his own family are wise enough not to derail this gravy train loaded with crazy. Unlike Peter Sellers's character Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby's 1979 film Being There, Hoffman's Dodd is not a naive simpleton whose words are mistaken for genius; he may be bonkers, but he knows exactly what he's doing.

It's an intriguing premise that starts strong and soon falters. Interesting-possibly important-subplots involving elements of Dodd's life and cult are brought up but never explored. At one point Dodd is arrested for misusing funds and running a medical clinic without a license; after two or three short scenes, nothing more is ever mentioned about scrapes with the law. In one scene Dodd's wife (played by Amy Adams) hints of his sexual indiscretions, but nothing more is ever mentioned about it. We spend much time in the inner workings of this movement, but we're given little clue about how the outside world views it. In these questions (and many others) The Master is content to let the audience to figure it out.

Aborted subplots are one thing, but The Master has a larger problem: We can see why the lost Freddie takes to the self-assured, powerful, charismatic Dodd, but it's much more of a mystery why Dodd is so enchanted by Freddie. With all the adoring and monied fans he could be spending time with, all the time he could be writing his next pseudoscientific tome, why is Dodd so fascinated and taken by this alcoholic mess of a man who everyone else recognizes as toxic? Is it some messianic desire to save someone and bring a lost soul into his fold? Perhaps, though presumably there are countless others who could fill that role for Dodd. Is it some undercurrent of homosexual attraction? Perhaps, though there's little or no hint of that in the script or performances. Is it merely voyeuristic thrill or power trip in getting Freddie to reveal his tortured soul? Or does Dodd really keep Freddie around because of his unique bartending skills that can turn turpentine and lighter fluid into a drinkable concoction, as we see in several scenes? Who knows? The audience doesn't--but even worse, the screenwriter doesn't seem to either. With this half of the equation murky, both characters remain essentially the same ciphers throughout the film.

The film was written, directed, and produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, the man behind films such as Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. While Anderson clearly subscribes to the less-is-more school of narrative exposition as a writer, the same can't be said for his direction. His technique is interesting (including playing very effectively with depth of field and oblique lighting) but with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, The Master takes far too long to make its points. There's nothing wrong with slow pacing in films as long as the acting and narrative can sustain the audience's interest. In The Master sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. A slightly bloated film is sometimes a sign of a very hands-on writer/director/producer too close to his pet project to give the editor free reign to cut a leaner version.

Like Dodd himself, there is both more and less to The Master than meets the eye. As a psychological character study of how damaged people can influence each other-and especially how those seeking solace and answers to life's questions can be sucked in by those providing easy (and nonsensical) answers, The Master is very good. As a film trying to tell a coherent story, The Master leaves something to be desired. Like the Navy doctor who tests Freddie with Rorschach cards upon his discharge and finds a disturbed man, Anderson wants the audience to fill in the gaps in his screenplay with their own ideas and interpretations of what's going on.

Many critics are praising The Master as a masterpiece, and it's hard not to see the irony in the glowing praise for an undeniably compelling but muddled film about an undeniably compelling but muddled guru assuring his followers that what he's saying makes sense.