Today: February 28, 2024
·

The Master

Apparently,

it’s not really about the Xenu-botherers…honest!

 

If you can’t wait the two weeks until it opens nationwide
and you’re planning to go see The Master
this week when it opens in all its 70mm glory in just one London cinema, why
not take a bottle with you and play The
Master
drinking game™!

 

Vodka.

 

Gin.

 

Whisky maybe.

 

But not the good stuff. Leave the single malt at home. We’re talking supermarket own-brand rotgut. The really cheap, nasty, value
stuff. Some Pholcodine Cough
Linctus would also probably hit the spot too. Or maybe some raki.
Absinthe. No mixers though,
nothing to dilute the booze and make it more palatable. Something strong, something that’ll
make you wince, something that’ll make you pull a face as you drink it. If you really want to get into the
swing of things, take a leaf from The
Master
’s central character Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) cocktail recipe book and try some paint thinner,
anti-freeze and torpedo fuel.

 

The rules are simple.
As you watch the film, every time Freddie takes a drink, you take a
drink. Every time Freddie utters a
line of intelligible dialogue, you take a drink. See if you can make it to the end of the film without puking
your guts up. Don’t worry about
missing major plot-points. There
aren’t any.

 

Our tale begins in 1945 with the Second World War ending and
troubled war veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin
Phoenix
) being medically discharged from the US Navy. We know Freddie’s troubled because when
we first meet him he’s making moonshine out of a liquid (Fuel? Anti-freeze?) he drains from the
warheads of torpedoes, furiously wanking over the idealised sand sculpture of a
woman some of his shipmates have made and turning up pissed and unintelligible
to his psychiatric evaluation with the Navy shrink.

 

Fast-forward a couple of years and Freddie’s still pissed
but now he’s a department store photographer who drinks his own developing
fluid. One fight with a customer
later and Freddie’s working as an itinerant cabbage picker and accidentally
poisoning his immigrant co-workers with his homemade hooch. Homeless, jobless and on the bum,
Freddie’s fortunes may just be looking up when he stows away aboard the yacht
of self-styled barefaced messiah, the titular Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who tells
Freddie: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a
theoretical philosopher. But above
all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

 

Founder of his own thinly-veiled Scientology-style cult, The
Cause, Dodd is fascinated by Freddie and submits him to “processing” (not
dissimilar to L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics auditing process), breaking him down
and rebuilding him. Freddie
becomes a true believer, a trusted confidant and the unquestioning blunt
instrument willing to assault and intimidate Dodd’s detractors despite Dodd’s
wife Peggy’s (Amy Adams) obvious
distrust and Dodd’s own son Val’s (Jesse
Plemons
) assertions that the Master is making it all up as he goes along.

 

Hugely ambitious, beautifully shot and boasting some
impeccable performances, The Master
is a diaphanous, obvious, slip of a film; there’s a lot of sound and fury but
little real substance. It’s hypnotic,
mesmerising, without ever being involving and with a quasi-religion and title
character obviously based on Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard,
there’s plenty of meat here but nothing you can get your teeth into. What is The Cause? What does it actually believe? There’s tangential mention during
processing sessions of alien invasion and past lives but nothing solid. Nor is their any real exploration of
what drives such a cult; the need to believe, the desire for acceptance, the
relationship between guru and devotee, the cult of personality, all largely go
unexplored as does any suggestion of homoerotic attraction between Dodd and
Freddie. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson draws on incidents
from Hubbard’s life and his founding of Scientology (the boats, Seymour
Hoffman’s resemblance to Hubbard, the arrest for practicing medicine without a
licence, his reliance on wealthy patrons, the desert conference, the school in
England, etc.) but pointedly avoids any exposé or overt criticism of the movement, even going so far as to
state publicly: “I didn’t want it to be a
biography. It’s not the L. Ron Hubbard story.” You can’t really blame him, the man would obviously like to
work again in Hollywood, but it is a shame; the L. Ron Hubbard story is the
interesting one to be told here.

 

Anderson prefers instead to concentrate on Joaquin Phoenix’s
disturbed, alcoholic drifter Freddie.
It’s a flamboyant, showy performance of hunched, almost bestial,
incoherence from Phoenix who spends much of the film bent over, clutching his
sides like someone with a particularly nasty urinary tract infection. He’ll probably get an Oscar nomination
for it but he shouldn’t. Far
better is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the blustering, charismatic Dodd; a
snakeoil salesman who may just believe his own hype. As she is in everything else she does, Amy Adams is easily
the best thing in the film, pitching Dodd’s wife Peggy as somewhere between a
Stepford Wife and Lady Macbeth and there’s strong support from Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Kevin J. O’Connor and Christopher Evan Welch.

 

Perhaps the greatest sin of the film is that we never get
any real sense of The Cause’s growth or the impact the Master has on his
followers. There are some
fantastic moments, Dodd’s initial processing of Freddie, the society dinner
party confrontation between Dodd and Christopher Evan Welch’s sceptic, but
ultimately, as much as it may at times enthrall, The Master is just too ponderous, too ambiguous to satisfy. Too little happens, there’s just too
much time devoted to Joaquin Phoenix’s asshole-drunk act. It’s thought-provoking but only in the
sense that you’d think with such rich material Anderson might have constructed
the truly epic film The Master so
obviously wants to be and which the critics have already anointed it as.

 

Perhaps the last word however should go to legendary
curmudgeon Harlan Ellison who
claimed in a 1978 interview: Scientology
i
s bullshit! Man, I was there the night L. Ron
Hubbard invented it, for Christ’s sakes!
We were sitting around one night…who else was there? Alfred Bester and Cyril Kornbluth and
Lester Del Rey. And Ron Hubbard,
who was making a penny a word and had been for years. And he said: “This bullshit’s got to stop!” He says: “I gotta get money.” He says: “I want to get rich.” And
somebody said: “Why don’t you invent a new religion? They’re always big.” We were clowning! You know: “Become
Elmer Gantry! You’ll make a fortune!” He says: “I’m
going to do it.”

 

Right there is the germ of a better film than The Master.

 

 

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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