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The Master (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Let’s be clear. This is not a film about Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix does not play a troubled Second World War veteran who starts a long relationship with Scientology after a chance encounter with L. Ron Hubbard. And Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play L. Ron Hubbard. With that out of the way let me explain a bit about this film.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled Second World War veteran (Freddie Quell) who, after a chance encounter with author and leader of the burgeoning religious cult The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has all sorts of beliefs about past lives and trapped souls and curing leukemia through “anti-hypnosis” (which, as is pointed out, seems an awful lot like hypnosis). He is also a terrible writer, with an uncanny ability to “discover” truths about the very essence of existence.

And that makes it sound far more exciting than it actually is.

Seriously.

Almost nothing of note happens in the entire film. No-one changes, no-one grows or learns anything. It’s the story of two troubled men who are just as troubled at the end as at the beginning, which is not surprising as nothing really happens to either of them. One is protected from the world by moonshine, the other by a fawning, downtrodden following. But perhaps that is the point. If so, I struggle to understand why it took nearly two and a half hours to say so. Indeed, it takes a good half hour or so before Dodd even appears, all of which is spent watching Freddie Quell running around being troubled.

At this point I should point out that I am not Armond White. I do not believe that the collected works of Paul W. S. Anderson (including the entire Resident Evil series and two AvP films) have more to offer to the medium of film than Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, I find the work of the former to be trash and found There Will Be Blood to be a fine film, in the best sense. I was looking forward to this.

So it brings me no pleasure to write such a scathing review. I went with two friends, both of whom also hated it. In fact, I was the most forgiving, which I suspect, was due to having been the only one of us to suffer through The Tree of Life in its entirety. So if you liked that, then you will probably love this.

Let’s try to find some positives.

First of all, it is well put together, with some nice sequences and tracking shots. It had a nice gloss and looked authentically like the 1950s (or at least, what I imagine the 1950s to have looked like). It has a couple of beautiful shots of the sea and there is a lovely setup in a prison sequence.

Then there was the acting. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great physical performance playing a troubled veteran with a number of war wounds, both physical and psychological. However, for a significant portion of the film I could not see the character as much more than Phoenix acting (what is commonly known in the industry as Ben Affleck Syndrome), even if it was good acting. As the film progressed I became less conscious of this, which may have been little more than indifference caused by increasing levels of boredom watching him walk back and fore across a room for 15 minutes, touching the wall, then touching the window.

Stealing every scene he was in and by far the best thing about this film was the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader, Dodd. He was outstanding in every scene and certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, at least. Personally, I would put him in the Best Actor category, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, though there might be some debate about that. I’d even go so far as to say a second statuette for the hugely talented actor would be well deserved. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix got a nomination as well, though I am not entirely convinced by his performance.

Another person who should definitely get a nod (this time in the Best Supporting Actress category), and who was by far the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the film was Amy Adams playing Dodd’s long-struggling, yet ideologically committed and articulate wife, Peggy. Having seen her in little more than films for children (Enchanted) and those with large amounts of black humour (Sunshine Cleaning) I was surprised to see her take on such a heavy role and even more so when she delivered a pitch-perfect performance. Though she has very much on the periphery, she has a number of key scenes in which she has an oppertunity to do something and in each she matches Hoffman. A win for her would not be undeserved.

Well, that’s quite enough of that.

There has been a lot of good things said about this film (as opposed specifically for the actors) and for the life of me I can’t see why. I attribute part of this to the cult that surrounds Paul Thomas Anderson, as it does with most famous and highly talented film-makers. People want to like it so talk it up. Another reason might be the similarities with Scientology (which it is definitely not about), but if anything this simply detracts from the film itself and adds to the mundane nature of the thing. If it’s anything else, I can’t see it. But perhaps that is the point, perhaps I just don’t “get it”. But I think I did, just as I’m pretty sure I “got” The Tree of Life.

I just didn’t like it.

I never walk out of films, and I didn’t walk out of this one, but the thought seriously crossed my mind, which was one of the first moments I realized I really didn’t like it, despite my best efforts to do so. I also found myself wishing that it was a documentary on Scientology, which would have been far more interesting.

In the end, this films fails to satisfy. It is not a exposé of Scientology (for legal reasons as much as anything else), nor is a particularly good film, though it was clearly made by a good film-maker. By the end I didn’t learn anything about anything, nor did I feel anything other than relief it was all over.

Yet technically, it was well made and some of the performances (particularly Hoffman and Adams) were terrific. I can only imagine how powerful their performances would have been, had this been a better (or even a good) film. As it is, I would struggle to recommend watching it for their performances alone because everything else is just so dull.

This is a hard film to rate, but in the end I think everything balances itself out, just about.

Grade: C