Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film that definitely isn’t about Scientology looks incredible and has two great (and at times, astonishing) central performances at its heart. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell – an able seaman recently discharged from the navy at the end of the war and struggling to hold down a civilian job due to his alcohol dependency. We’re not just talking too many beers and whiskys though – Quell is some kind of booze alchemist, creating potions and poisons from any drink and household chemicals he finds lying around. We’ve all known someone like Freddie Quell, and chances are we haven’t heard from them in the last ten years or so. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodds, the ‘Master’ of The Cause, who takes Freddie under his wing and struggles to ‘cure’ and control him.
Anderson creates a hugely believable world, with an interesting premise. Amy Adams puts in a lovely performance as Dodd’s wife, while the audience is also treated to a wonderful soundtrack from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.
Yet, The Master bored me immensely. In fact, I haven’t seen a film become less than the sum of its parts in such a drastic way in a very long time.
We’re presented with two fascinating characters, who when they’re talking to each other (and to the people around them) hold my interest and draw me in much like the cult they represent. The problem is neither character really goes on a personal or external journey of any real consequence. I could forgive the lack of a journey if I had some sense of the history of the characters, or some deeper insight into their motivations. Indeed, Quell’s lack of a personal journey is symptomatic of the failure of The Cause’s methods. But what makes Quell so different from all the other demobbed servicemen of the time? Does Dodds believe what he is teaching, and if not, what is leading him to deceive all these people? Over the course of the film’s 140-minute running time we see no great urge for money or power from Dodds.
The Cause is all about discovering past lives, and righting wrongs that may have happened billions of years ago. Perhaps it was Anderson’s intention to make the ‘current’ lives the viewer sees onscreen superficial and lacking in depth or context as a counterpoint to the teachings of The Cause. However frustrated me and felt like when I see singers get the crowd to bellow the lines of their biggest hit, seemingly unaware that the audience have paid to see them perform. Ambiguity has its place, but I demand my storytellers to actually tell me a story, and not rely on me to fill in the vast majority of the blanks.
There also appeared to be a TWENTY MINUTE training montage in the middle of the film. If you’re going to have a training montage, the least you can do is soundtrack it with something like “You’re the Best Around” from The Karate Kid.
Watching The Master felt like I was watching a film that I ‘should’ like. It did everything a great film should, and Anderson is clearly an incredibly talented director. I just couldn’t connect with this film at all.
It didn’t grab me here *points to heart*
Or engage me here *points to head*
Overall, there is plenty to admire about this film, but very little to love. Feels like a wasted opportunity.