The Master, a much-buzzed about presumptive Oscar contender, has many fine qualities, but nothing that connects.
Like the Emperor of lore, The Master has no clothes.
Literally, at times, people shed their clothes, but figuratively, the movie is a fine example of excellent parts that are more than the sum of the whole.
Joaquin Phoenix gives an astonishing performance as Freddy Quell, a man wholly given over to his baser nature. We first meet Freddie as he performs carnal acts on a womanly sand sculpture on the beach during a day of R&R during his stint in the Navy of World War II. He is consumed by a desire for sex, which he encapsulates in one word that can also mean a kitty cat. After the war, he becomes the kind of alcoholic that puts paint thinner in his concoctions and scours hosts’ bathroom cabinets for mouthwash he can drink. He drifts from one manual job to the next, always losing what position he has in sudden bursts of irrational violence.
The man has problems.
There’s a sort of mutual love at first sight when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a glitsy, sophisticated troop of people who spend their time recreating memories and oohing and ahhing over Dodd’s wise-sounding pronouncements. Dodd has theories out the wazoo, ever shifting. You lived before, many times. You had trauma from past lives that must be exorcised by intensive therapy sessions. You should give him money for he knows the truth.
It feels familiar now, a shifty cult leader leading people on, but we are a cynical age.
Freddie buys in wholeheartedly. Except he doesn’t.
Maybe he is skeptical. Maybe he is not capable of skepticism. Maybe he has no idea what he’s doing or how to evaluate truth or human nature. We don’t know because the movie never tells us.
It’s an interesting premise, the charismatic metaphysic meeting the ultimate primitive. Intellect versus primal instinct.
Unfortunately, that’s all the movie is. Premise. It goes on, to be sure, for 137 minutes, but – and this is key – for those 137 minutes…..nothing happens.
I have never been so bored in my life.
And that includes elementary school band concerts.
137 minutes of Joaquin Phoenix embodying a man completely unintegrated with himself. His very posture speaks “loser.” He speaks words about himself, bad words, and you can see the emotion in his face as he hears them, considers them, and lets them sink in. They spread from his eyes across his brow, through the marvelous grooves in his cheeks.
If you are a student studying acting, you could do worse than watching this performance again and again, in slow motion if necessary. Likewise, Hoffman nails the role of self-proclaimed prophet, as we all knew he could. He is gregarious menace, loving control, abuse in a soft glove. Amy Adams leaves behind her perky self to be nearly as scary as Hoffman. Her character, Dodd’s pregnant wife, is the ultimate true believer. Despite her small stature and her lady-like manner, she is the one who would surely kill for the cause.
There is also fine, excellent cinematography, with shots that will break your heart. A daring scene shows a party from Freddy’s demented point of view, the women fully nude, prancing around as if they had clothes. It’s interesting and revealing in more ways than one, but not connected to any other moments in the film and somewhat jarring as a result.
The story starts and then it ends, 137 minutes later, with not one change in one character or in the situation of a character. Things happen, violence happens, Dodd spouts glorious claptrap, the group moves around a lot, but nothing changes in the central conflict of the story.
Perhaps that’s because there is no central conflict.
I could suggest a few. Perhaps it’s a bromance where two men fall in some sort of love, either erotic or not, and grow closer until they grow apart or unite in some meaningful way. Perhaps it’s a horror story of a terrible person taking advantage of a troubled person (either the bum abusing the prophet or the other way around. I’m not picky.). Perhaps it’s a story of hubris, Icarus in a suit, who flies too close to the metaphysical sun and falls to earth.
The thing is, as written, the movie is not a story. At best, it’s a 137 minute portrait.
Much has been written about the connection of the film to Scientology. It seems clear that the film is about Scientology, but that is also a boring controversy to me. Does anyone really believe Scientology is a real thing or, conversely, a real threat? Those guys who sit in pyramids in public places and the Hare Krishna are also real and goofy, but nobody makes movies about them.
Critics love to get their knickers in a wad about these buzz movies, often implying that if you don’t enjoy them, or at least respect them, you’re not very bright or culturally literate.
I have touted such arthouse movies as No Country for Old Men and The Tree of Life. Sometimes art is difficult.
But don’t let anyone talk down on you if you don’t like The Master. Or indeed if you never see it. It’s not art. It’s merely great acting. There’s a difference.
Rated R for language, sexual content and graphic nudity (including full frontal female nudity).
Jeffrey Overstreet has an entirely different take on The Master.
The Master and Real Faith by Kendrick Kuo