By Joan Ellis
At the risk of being consigned to the dustbin, I will tell you about The Master, a movie Rolling Stone – among others – has called “a masterpiece.” In my humble opinion it is a terrible movie, an insult to the audience, an affront, an assault.
Paul Thomas Anderson is widely respected as a writer and director (e.g. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood). To his credit, he is also an explorer in the medium. But this time he is inviting a salute for exploring the profound reaches of art. Critics who love profundity are piling on with the convoluted praise usually reserved for great works.
If this movie is, as is widely rumored, based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology movement, then imagine this: a floor with pieces of the story scattered all about at random. Imagine picking up the pieces, examining them, trying to make sense of them only to realize that all are unconnected. Those pieces are this movie, and none of them fits the puzzle of the whole.
Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a counterfeit do-gooder, a pretender with aspirations to leading a flock based on a promise to cure all their ills if only they will relive their prenatal lives under his direction. As the needy and vulnerable and mentally ill come through his always uxorious doors, he infuses his callous operation with his own vanity and ambition. He will be a Master.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of those. In unrelated snippets we are told that Freddie served in the Navy during World War II, that he is a drunk given to sudden violent rage and that he has nowhere to go until he stumbles onto a ship where Dodd has taken his followers on a working vacation. Freddie mixes various chemicals from engines, kitchens, and darkrooms and shares these strange cocktails with his new mentor. All the while, we learn nothing about either of them beyond the simple equation of fraudulent mentor and mentally ill drunk – the Master and the led.
The 1950 timeframe explains Amy Adams’ interpretation of Dodd’s dutiful wife who carefully censors her will of steel. She is the hammer that pounds the message home after her husband has done half the job.
Even if this interminable movie is an accurate portrayal of a repugnant American cult, it offers no explanation of the drive for power by a charlatan over vulnerable others.
Hoffman and Phoenix, both at the top of their profession, have become so highly respected that it’s hard not to wonder whether the critics, in the manner of the led, haven’t wrapped them in too much unassailable profundity. The Master’s son spoke the most important line in the movie: “He’s making it all up as he goes along.”
The question lingers: Is this movie deeply unpleasant because the subject matter is sick or because the movie fails? Probably both. Think twice before you go.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.