Movie Review: “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 2012)

A note: I need to polish up the last few “Breaking Bad” reviews, so I sneaked in a couple of others. This one is a repost of a review I wrote on Facebook back when the film first came out.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still probably best known for his film Magnolia (USA 1999), a film with essentially nothing to say that was only watchable at all for Tom Cruise’s performance and Julianne Moore looking like Julianne Moore that captured the public’s imagination because of its ridiculous frog-raining and the simple technique of parallel editing that for some reason convinces the public that films are “deep.” He’s been something of a popular critics’ darling, much the same as Wes Anderson (I always confuse the two of them.) and Ang Lee. Like those directors, he has fared far worse with the more academically-minded critics, but has become highly thought of by the public because of consistent Oscar success anyway.

However, Anderson’s most recent film is supposedly (as far as I know, he is not explicitly denying this, but of course he will not say it) based on L. Ron Hubbard and his founding of the “Church of Scientology.” I couldn’t ignore something like that, especially when he gets such a great pair of lead actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. (The latter of whose career has been distressingly slow to recover from the marketing stunt-gone-bad surrounding I’m Still Here [Casey Affleck, USA 2010], seemingly from people who refuse to believe that it was marketing. That’s just stupid.)

However, while Anderson’s lead character, Lancaster Dodd, is similar to Hubbard, he really isn’t him. This guy is charismatic (Which is a word I would not have suggested fit Philip Seymour Hoffman before, a tribute to his performance.) and, while he definitely shows a propensity toward anger when questioned, he is a calm, reasonable sort of character the rest of the time, except that he is spouting a remarkable amount of nonsense. He’s more the traditional archetype of the cult leader than Hubbard was, which is a bit less interesting.

The lead character is really Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell: a severely scarred war veteran with extreme anger issues who ends up running into Dodd, who takes it as his personal mission to “fix” Freddie’s mental health issues instead of sending Freddie to a professional (however, oddly, none of Hubbard’s famous vitriol at psychology/psychiatry made its way into the film). Phoenix’s performance was really difficult to judge, because he was playing the broken man with some severe physical issues (inability to move one side of his face being the most obvious) that were never explained and he spent the entire film just angry and horny–there wasn’t anything else to him. Needless to say, Dodd’s methods don’t work, which is oddly the entire point of the film.

And that’s where everything really falls apart: the entire point of the film is that Scientology doesn’t fix mental health problems. Really. That’s all Anderson has to say. It’s not impossible to make a film about someone’s inability to change that works extraordinarily well, see In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA 1950), but it doesn’t work when you just show us the same exact scene of the guy breaking down repeatedly and go out of your way to ensure that we have no sympathy for him. However, Anderson doesn’t bother with the depth and nuance of In a Lonely Place. His film is about an angry, horny drunk who spends years following around a cult leader who doesn’t fix him and he shows us Freddie “falling off the wagon,” so to speak, in the same way every time. While there’s certainly a logic to this idea, it’s plain boring.

Visually, the film looks excellent but not original. It was shot in 70 mm (I think that makes it the first film released in the US to be shot in 70 mm since Hamlet [Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996].), which means that it is as sharp and vibrant as films come. However, there’s simply nothing unconventional about it. The only thing that really stood out visually was the very slow editing, appropriate for a story that’s basically about two guys talking over a long period of time.

Hoffman is, as always, fantastic. He makes a much more credible cult leader than Hubbard did in reality. I don’t know what to make of Phoenix. The only other person with significant screen time is Amy Adams, who handles her very simple part well enough but of course doesn’t have to do anything.

Johnny Greenwood’s score is quite excellent, which is not an easy task when it’s stuck trying to make sense of such a dull, repetitive movie with no point.

This was a failure of a film, one that’s getting by on its “scandalous” origins as a film based on Hubbard and a fantastic performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Can we please stop being shocked every time he’s great? Seriously, people keep acting like he’s some sort of new revelation in every role just because he’s not good looking enough to be a major star.) It really isn’t worth watching, which is a shame for a subject that could make a good film.

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