I am quite convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of the new sorta controversial film The Master (sorta because in the end, the controversy surprisingly didn’t revolve around whether it was or wasn’t a story about Scientology, but whether it was any good or not) fully understands his movie and everything that happens in it. Unfortunately, if I’m going to be completely honest here, I didn’t understand anything in it.
The basic plot is about the intersection of two men, broken down alcoholic Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix, giving it his all), and the leader of a cult in its infancy Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who isn’t quite as effective). But it’s this intersection that is the main issue for me and the reason the movie never quite got off the ground: these two men who become absolutely fascinated with each other (to a homoerotic degree), but without any convincing reason for it. It all begins when Quell makes his drunken stupor way onto Dodd’s boat and instead of being thrown into the brink, Dodd takes Quell under his wing. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea. And why does Quell stay? Well, other than free room and board and the ability to make his bootleg whiskey with the approval of Dodd, I also haven’t the faintest idea. And without clear and understandable reasons, or at least convincing ones, I’m not sure that this story can ever really work.
Phoenix plays his role with a stooped and nearly hunchbacked set of shoulders and a distinct (or often, indistinct) mumble. Like Anderson and the film, I’m not sure what Phoenix is trying to do here, but in many ways, I think Phoenix is at least doing it rather brilliantly. Quell is sexually obsessed, seeing erotic possibilities in everything (from standard Rorschach tests to a somewhat bizarre scene at a private home where Dodd sings “I Will Go No More a Roving” where, from Quell’s perspective, all the women are naked—well, Amy Adams is sorta naked—she presents herself rather modestly, but that’s what three Oscar nominations and a strong agent can do for you). What may be hard to believe is that women go ga-ga over him when there are much better looking men around. If his character made sense, then his performance might be much more memorable. But there are times when it seems he’s do the ultra-method approach to cover up that there is something lacking on the page.
Hoffman has a different issue and here, for me, Anderson makes the same mistake he made in There Will be Blood when he cast Paul Dano as an up and coming preacher of national repute. It was impossible for me to believe that thin-voiced, scrawny Dano could ever become a Billy Sunday and I still claim that only people who have never seen a preacher at a revival service could think so. In the same way, Dodd is supposed to be the leader of a cult about to go big. But Hoffman, who is one of our finest character actors (a modern day Charles Laughton in many ways), shows almost no charisma and gives no indication as to why his character would be able to attract anyone to his beliefs.
The rest of the cast get the job done. Amy Adams has moments here and there, but like the rest of the actors, she seems a bit lost as to what is driving her character. In the end, the best performance is probably given by Christopher Evan Welch as a doubter who questions Dodd at a party scene—but in his defense, he has the best written part.
Even the cult that Dodd’s creating doesn’t feel all that impressive or seems that well thought out. The most interesting aspect of it is a series of questions Dodd asks Quell that forces Quell to confront something about himself that is unpleasant (this is the only scene that indicates that Dodd might be more than the man behind the curtain). The least interesting aspect of the cult seems based on a basic past life regression belief (certainly an effective approach to attracting believers, since many cults have been built around reincarnation, but not particularly original or exciting). The most puzzling aspect is a series of strange exercises that Quell is put through in order to help him break away from whatever it is that is holding him back—but since these exercises make no sense and seem arbitrary (which may be the point, but I don’t really know, which is the main issue I have with the movie), they don’t really connect (and go on forever—the food is terrible, but such large servings punch line).
The strongest parts of the film are the technical aspects. It’s beautifully shot, the cinematographer (Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) capturing a stark beauty of the post war world. The sets (production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk and set decoration by Amy Wells) give a haunting period feel and make us regret that so much of this architecture is being lost. But perhaps most impressive are the costumes by Mark Bridges that make full use of what is perhaps the strongest line of design in American history for both men and women (and these are perhaps some of the best tailored outfits I’ve seen in a movie for some time).
I admire Anderson and have loved such films as Hard Eight, Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love (though only half of There Will Be Blood). He is one of our finest filmmakers. But in the end, for me, The Master was basically Elmer Gantry but without Elmer Gantry or Sister Sharon Falconer, perhaps not the best approach.
P.S. For those trivia lovers out there, that’s Patty McCormack, the bad seed from The Bad Seed, as Mildred Drummond.