DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson
FEATURING: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman
PLOT: Failing to fit into society after returning from World War II, a libidinous alcoholic
sailor falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader (modeled on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard).
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only a single hallucination scene and some impressionistic storytelling that flirts with the oneiric gives us the slightest opening to even discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest bit of Oscar bait as a weird film. And yet, even though we’re as pickled in weirdness as The Master‘s sloshed sailor Freddie is in solvent-boosted booze, we’re conscious of how ridiculously strange this confounding film appears to average audiences. From geriatric walkouts to bloggers complaining the film is “weird for the sake of being weird” to the infallibly wrong Rex Reed declaring it “juvenile and superficial trash” in a class with Mulholland Drive and Being John Malkovich, The Master may be worthy of weirdophiles notice more because it’s annoying the right people than because of its inherent oddness.
COMMENTS: The Master isn’t an exposé of the origins of Scientology; that would be a mere barrel-fishing expedition. The tenets propounded by Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master (played with a carefully portioned-out charisma by Philip Seymour Hoffman) are an intellectual MacGuffin. Dramatically, the film centers around the bond between the uncomfortably avuncular Dodd and lost soul Freddie—the co-dependent relationship between Master and cultist, in which the need to be believed in is as desperate as the need to believe. Thematically, the movie is about man’s quixotic need to find meaning and purpose in existence, about a human emptiness that is filled by ritual and community, not rational deliberation. Anderson assumes the audience will understand The Cause’s teachings are hokum, and in case we don’t get it, a character explains, “You know he’s making it up as he goes along, right?” By taking the absurdity of the cult’s dogma as a given, Anderson shifts the emphasis from an examination of the truth or falsity of particular doctrines to the more provocative question of whether even blatantly ridiculous mumbo-jumbo can nonetheless be morally uplifting—and whether such salvation is worth the price. Joaquin Phoenix knows exactly what Anderson needs from the role, and his tormented, twitchy performance as a drunken lecher trapped in his own animalistic nature will be remembered come awards time. It’s a daring portrayal, because with his dimwitted stares, heed-banging tantrums and exaggerated agonies, Phoenix risks looking hammy and ridiculous. Freddie, who spikes his drinks with paint thinner because vodka has lost its kick, makes love to a sand castle in the shape of a woman, and masturbates into the ocean, is the most moving kind of character: one who’s repulsive, both physically and spiritually, but with whom we sympathize because his suffering and loneliness strikes a universal chord. He also stands as a challenge, or even a reproach, to Dodd’s faith—which this Master shares with conventional religions—that “man is not an animal.” Hoffman’s controlled performance, the super-ego to Phoenix’ id, is a delight in its own right, although his role mainly serves to highlight Freddie’s mania. Dodd is no simple charlatan, but a surprisingly congenial and even affectionate egotist who, as depicted here, sincerely believes his chicanery will better mankind. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master,” he tells Freddie in the film’s key scene, “be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” That “any master” is a brilliant addendum, an unexpectedly selfless expression of love from Dodd (the equivalent of “even if you don’t get help from me, get help from someone”) and another indicator that the movie’s concerns go deeper than the peculiar quirks of the Cause. Ultimately, The Master‘s dogma is humanistic, tragic and romantic: the faith that a depraved freedom is preferable to a sick salvation.
The Master was shot in 65mm film, a lush but expensive format that today is typically only used for IMAX films. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of theaters around that are still have 70mm projectors capable of projecting the film in the way it was meant to be seen.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful — camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief. “–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)