The Master: A Colossal and Pretentious Flop

THE MASTER  (2012)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Annapurna Pictures, 137 mins. R (for gratuitous nudity and mumbling)

The pre-release buzz was that The Master would be a heavyweight Oscar contender; the post-release reality is that moviegoers unfortunate enough to see it will be force-fed a Thanksgiving turkey that arrived two months early. Among the tag lines one might hang on this bloviating, bloated fowl/foul are: “Dianetics is more understandable than Paul Thomas Anderson’s script,” “A film that will make you want to join a cult that doesn’t allow movies,” and “Joaquin Phoenix—the greatest mumbler since Marlon Brando in Superman.” Regarding the latter, don’t look for this film to win any Oscars unless a new category is added: Best Delivery of Unintelligible Utterances,” in which case it’s Phoenix in a walkover. 

The Master is a not-so-thinly veiled slam at Dianetics/Scientology, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Lancaster Dodd, an affable clone of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard Sr. All Dodd film family members are stand-ins for the Hubbards, including Jesse Plemons as Val (L. Ron, Junior), the eldest son and heir apparent, who knows the old man is making up nonsense off the top of his head; and Amy Adams as Peggy(Mary Sue), Lancaster’s younger, but domineering third wife who is the real brains behind the scam. The family storyline is so close to that of the Hubbards that one presumes that the only reason names were changed was to deflect the likelihood of a Scientology lawsuit. (For those who don’t know, Scientology is a controversial set of beliefs that appear to be equal doses of science fiction and mystical views adapted from other religions. Past-lives, the immortality of the individual, and the search for one’s true/pure nature are among its least controversial beliefs. It is generally viewed as a cult. The “auditing” ritual by which new members are considered is similar to the “processing” practices seen in The Master. )

What we might have gotten was a penetrating look at the power of charisma, the way cults recruit, and the making of a scoundrel. In other words, we could have gotten Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, a film superior to The Master on every imaginable level. The Master centers on the fiery attract/repulse relationship between Dodd and Freddie Quell (Phoenix). Freddie is one half a child of nature, and one half low-life, moonshine-making, sex-obsessed, alcoholic, nitwit bum. Freddie returns from World War II, where he spent his final days on a Pacific Ocean coral reef masturbating into a sand sculpture of a woman, one complete with a vagina. (I felt like leaving after this scene. I should have followed my pure nature!) When circumstances lead him to Dodd, Freddie is (barely) smart enough to see The Cause/Scientology as his one shot at finding a niche in life, though the cost would be mastery over his thirst, id, and libido.

I suppose we’re supposed to muse over the essential contradiction between Dodd’s insistence upon the need to discover one’s true nature and his inability to accept that the behavior Freddie exhibits is his authentic nature, but by giving such analysis to the film I give the script more credit for thoughtfulness than it exhibits.  It’s hard to know much more about Freddie, as you’ll miss every third word Joaquin Phoenix slurs. Granted he’s playing a character slowly rotting his mind and body with the (literal) poisons he cooks into his home brew. Fine. If that’s what you want to show on the screen, don’t try to use revelatory dialogue to convey it. Nothing in this film makes much sense; it’s a rambling mess in which it’s never clear if we are seeing something that’s really happening, or if it’s a projection emanating from Freddie’s torn-sprocket mind. Ambiguity, or simply bad writing? Go with the second. 

To borrow a concept from Scientology, it’s possible that Anderson was a scriptwriter in another life, but he isn’t in this one. If that’s not direct enough, try this: I haven’t wasted 2 ½ hours this badly since I took the PSATs forty years ago.   Still confused? Try this–The Master is a piece of pretentious garbage. I’m no fan of Scientology, but I’ll give its followers credit—they’ve ignored this film. And so should you.—Rob Weir

No comments: