The Master (2012)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern.
Run Time: 144 minutes.
Fuck. One of the many rules of review writing states that one cannot begin an article with an unattached expletive, but there you go. It’s the only way I can articulate my experience of viewing The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s thinly veiled Scientology parable. I honestly don’t really see a review as necessary, as for me, it wasn’t really a film in the traditional sense. I like to try new things and experience different styles and genres from around the world, but (and I still don’t know if this is a good or bad thing) The Master was just too much for me. It was too radical. It was too real. I’m now trapped in an existential nightmare, unsure if the world around me is real anymore.
The Master is an unforgiving film that takes no prisoners. There is also no doubt as to the intelligence and layering of the film by the master behind it all, Paul Thomas Anderson. There is so much going on, so many subtle little nods at the back of your mind that you are unable to pick up on, but simultaneously already know about. It is a surreal experience and one that deeply unsettled me. It is so much more than ‘that film about scientology’. Really, it isn’t a film about scientology or cults in general for that matter, at all. It’s a film about the tortured disenfranchised souls who wander this world disconnected to it, and the entities that prey on them. This transcends cults and their leaders, encompassing global conglomerates to fascist dictatorships, and most of all, mainstream religion.
The film also plays out like this: we view the film from the perspective of Freddie Quell (played by a mesmeric Joaquin Phoenix), our titular loner and deviant who tries to find purpose through The Cause. The film has a disjointed, dream-like quality, with its non-linear narrative style, Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead fame) haunting jazz score (never thought I’d ever have to write that sentence) and ultra focussed filming style. Quell stumbles through the film, hunched over and gargling incoherently through his twisted mouth. He often breaks out in to fits of childlike laughter, fuelled by his ‘poisonous’ hooch. It is a terrifying and animalistic performance by Phoenix, who looks and acts ill. No doubt the Academy will come calling and rightly so. He has adopted ‘the method’ to such an extreme, that after a while, he almost becomes unbearable to watch.
This is tempered by The Master himself, Lancaster Dodd (a subtle but enjoyable performance from the ever reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is very much the acceptable incarnation of Quell, hiding his aggression and discontent with the world behind a mask of learned ‘science’. He sees himself in Freddie, and takes him on board as his protégé and passion project. As the film goes on however, we begin to feel that neither character believes in the teachings, or their magical therapeutic qualities, allowing the film to take a darker turn. I soon began to question what events were real.
I was expecting more of an actual attack on scientology here, but while Dodd’s esoteric pseudo scientific methods are quite similar, they take more of a back seat to the emotional clout of the film, and the infrequent and scrappily violent outburst they cause. Nothing here is explained, leaving an open ended plot and what some may consider an unsatisfactory ending. Quell and Dodd end the film in their original states, having been unable to influence each other to change.
The film ends with us questioning who The Master truly is, and if we can live in a world without masters. This left me questioning the whole point of the film. I’ve alternated through:
- There isn’t one, and it’s just a futile snapshot of desperate people looking to belong, and the burgeoning religion they cling to.
- It’s a grand narrative that allows us to question what we hold dear, and what we see as an acceptable view of the world.
- It’s an unconventional love story between Dodd and Quell, framed by an unforgiving and baffling religion.
I fully expect The Master to astound and infuriate in equal measure. I saw the film with someone who absolutely loved it, acting like a disciple of The Cause after viewing. I still can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it, as the film is so challenging and hard to watch. This doesn’t technically make it a bad film, as numerous films I like are difficult viewing. I also expect it to sweep the boards at the Oscars. This review itself feels as unstructured and disjointed as the film, but I hope you understand what I’m trying to convey. All I can say for certain is you won’t see many other films like it, and I still don’t really know what to make of it all.
Score: ‘Fucked if I know’ out of 10.
If you liked this, check out: Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood.