The Master: Great Acting, Doesn’t Hold Together


We went to see The Master based upon rave reviews and awards at the Venice Film Festival. Unfortunately, it is the kind of movie that critics like better than most regular members of the audience do. It is filled with great performances, has a lot of interesting ideas, some real conflicts and wonderfully cinematic scenes, but nothing pulls together. The very cinematic approach detracts from the ideas, and the confusion of the underlying ideas needlessly ruins the flow of the cinema. It is less than the sum of its parts.

The main focus of the movie is on the interaction of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group, the Cause, who is convinced that he has the secret of unlocking past lives and improving mankind, with a real loser, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who is a drunk and a womanizer. Dodd is fascinated by the man’s weaknesses as well his ability to make bootleg liquor out of just about everything. Dodd selects Freddie as his protégé, convinced that he can cure him of all his problems. Things do not work out as planned as time after time Freddie manages to wreck the group’s plans.

Despite accusations that this is a critique of Scientology, I think they are (well, at least partially) wrong. Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie is about any group of true believers. To outsiders, particularly cynical ones, any religion has strange elements. Going even deeper, however, the true believer mantle can be put over the shoulders of almost any reform group. Go to a convention of UFO enthusiasts and you might feel the same enthusiasm, the same paranoia demonstrated by members of the Cause. On a broader note, how about those who truly believe that the solution to all problems is having the government spend more money on them? Or, conversely, those who truly believe that the solution to those same problems is for the government to spend less or even no money at all on them?

At any rate, the performances are so strong that they almost carry the film. Phoenix’s Freddie is such a loser that normally, who would care about his failures? He has a sleazy charm that he uses at times but has such poor impulse control, particularly over his temper, that he should have a tattoo “Born to Fail” on his arm. But, somehow, Phoenix, in a performance that will probably be recognized when Oscar nominations come out, makes us care and allows his character to take center stage when the movie shifts to focus on Dodd.

And Hoffman comes across almost as strongly as Phoenix in a role that is far more cerebral. His Lancaster Dodd is very complex, a thinker whose followers believe he has unlocked the secret to success and happiness through “deprogramming,” a process in which interested people confess their sins, not only of this life but of past ones, learn to see and believe whatever they are told is correct even when their eyes and ears argue, and, finally, learn to accept who they are without flinching. That is the theory, but, frankly, it came across far more as brainwashing. Dodd speaks in parables, often sounding like bad fortune cookies. “We fought against today and we won,” is an example. Dodd is clearly as troubled as Freddie. He loses his temper at key spots when questioned, and, as his son tells Freddie: “Don’t you see? He makes it up as he goes along.”

The rest of the cast is very strong. Amy Adams is solid as Dodd’s young and very strong wife. Laura Dern makes her mark as a true believer who is the first to spot a major discrepancy in Dodd’s work, and all the other cast members create a strong ensemble.

But the movie is flawed by its virtuosity. It is not quite a movie of ideas because Anderson indulges himself in all of Freddie’s crudities as well as a series of set exercises that show the weaknesses of the Cause’s beliefs. Movies of ideas with strong performances are wonderful (think Citizen Kane and A Man for All Seasons) when they really hold together. This movie does have the brilliant acting but unfortunately lacks a real focus for its ideas. It is a brilliant, fascinating mess. Critics may rave, but if the audience I was sitting with is any kind of a judge, those who believe most of the critics will be disappointed.