The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

What's it about? Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a soldier returned home to US soil with post-traumatic stress disorder after WWII. After drifting aimlessly from job to job, the aggressive and increasingly alcoholic Quell meets and is taken in by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a new cult, The Cause, which aims to cleanse people through self-help and self-improvement. It's about Scientology, you know. Except it isn't really.

Is it any good? Both a fascinating film and a flawed one. As in the superior There Will Be Blood, Anderson is using these characters not so much to tell a story, but to ask uncomfortable questions about those twin driving forces of the American psyche; religion and money. From the outset, it will be obvious to even the most lowly Operating Thetan that the character of the self-aggrandizing Dodd and his 'Cause' is based on L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics teachings, which took root in 1950s America and ultimately gave rise to Scientology. However, although the film clearly dismisses the practices involved, Anderson doesn't seem inclined to ridicule or condemn that particular organisation as many expected (or even wanted) him to do. Instead, he prefers to illustrate and explore the human neuroses and/or failings that draws people towards such ideas and cultures, therefore giving them credibility. This is what makes the first half of the film interesting as a shrewd examination of those turbulent post-war years in American history, a period in which characters like Dodd flourished as they tended to the needs of a restless nation, even though their approaches were little more than charlatan quackery. 


All this serves as background for the intriguing psychological drama between the leads, which is given extra heft by the performances. Phoenix puts in an absolutely thetanic performance as the agonised Quell, his facial expressions, his speech and his entire posture suggesting a man desperate to escape from himself. Hoffman as the titular Master is quieter, but no less impressive, although the motivations of his character are less clear. This becomes problematic as the film progresses, because after a strong set-up, it's as if the film suddenly realizes it's not quite sure what it wants to be about. It starts to lose focus and Anderson seems unsure of how he should bring things to an end. So, instead of progressing triumphantly along the bridge to total freedom, it peters out rather meekly and, despite the beautiful photography and obvious artistry at work, I can't see it sticking long in my memory. That said, I confess that there may be levels operating in this film that I'm not able to process, but perhaps I need to pay more to access and understand them. 

I don't trust you. What do others think? Ecstatic reviews from the critics and appeared on most Best of 2012 lists, as well as being in contention for several awards. Naturally, it performed poorly at the box office. But what most people wanted to see was how the scientologists in the higher echelons of Hollywood would greet the film. Would they be accepting of it, or would they see it all as the evil work of galactic dictator Xenu? In particular, people hoped for some sort of celebrity smackdown event between Anderson and Tom Cruise, who had given one of his best performances under Anderson's direction in Magnolia. So it was all very disappointing when the film came and went without causing much of a kerfuffle, with everyone at pains to say they were all still friends. But a word of warning, Paul Thomas Anderson. Scientologists have long memories. Like, literally......

Anything else I should know?





















What does the Fonz think? 7/10 on the E-meter 






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