Wednesday 27 November 2013

Movie Review: The Master (2012)

A rather tiresome study of two characters, The Master is just about saved by the terrific acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but nevertheless registers as a misfire for director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) comes out of World War Two as a sex-obsessed alcoholic, brewing toxic drinks, unable to settle down, and drifting from one dead-end job to another. He stumbles into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a self-proclaimed Master of "The Cause", a pseudo-religious cult based on psychological interviews, mostly feeding on the insecurities of the clueless.

Dodd's entourage includes his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), son Val (Jesse Plemons) and benefactor Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern). They try to spread their influence by mingling within social circles and selling Dodd's books. The Master cannot tolerate any dissent, nor can he rationally defend his work when challenged. He does develop a strong bond with Freddie, who proves to be a simpleton but also a staunch defender of The Cause, often physically intimidating any sceptics. But Freddie's inability to quit drinking causes continuous turmoil, with Peggy in particular disgusted by his loutish behaviour, and his standing within The Cause is thrown into question.

The Master suffers from a disjointed script cobbled together from ideas considered surplus for There Will Be Blood, tall stories recounted by actor Jason Robards, the life story of John Steinbeck, and inspiration from the squalors of Scientology. The result is a strangely muted narrative in which very little actually happens, and plenty of time passes with blank stares, pregnant pauses, and strikingly endless repetition of some scenes.

The film may be trying to explore themes of fake dogma and how some poor souls can be easily manipulated, but it's a laborious, painfully obvious and almost pointless exercise. Anderson struggles to generate any sort of momentum, the film slow to the point of standing still, and he is equally unable to create sympathy for either of his two main characters. While Lancaster is an effective salesman of garbage to the easily manipulated, neither he nor Quell are portrayed as anywhere near smart or worth caring about. The lack of likability becomes a heavy anchor tied to the ankle of the movie, and other than the obvious conclusion that they deserve each other, the destinies of oily charlatan Lancaster Dodd and brutish drunkard Freddie Quell are all too easy to file under the "who cares" category.

But The Master does enjoy two memorable acting performances. Phoenix bows his back, twists his face, and develops an awkward, slightly hesitant walk, Freddie a broken shell of a man looking for a reason to live just so that he can drink for another day. Hoffman gives Dodd the authority of a man quite capable of fooling some of the people all of the time, his sense of self-importance barely concealing an intellect that is making up the nonsense of The Cause almost in real time.

In comparison Amy Adams is quite wasted. She gets just the two strong scenes, one asserting her dominance over Lancaster by taking complete control of his manhood, and in the other dressing down Freddie by calling him out for who he is. Otherwise, she fades into the wallpaper. The other supporting actors have little to do except occupy slow moving space.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman do provide two masterful reasons to watch the 140 minute film through to its conclusion, but it's nevertheless a slog.

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