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The Master.

Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve never understood the fascination with this director. Some say he’s brilliant, but to me, he’s just kind of there. He tried diligently over the years to create something truly meaningful to cinephiles everywhere, and his attempts are always admirable, but they are just that, attempts. As a writer, he’s going for the grand, but only achieves it visually (where his skills as a visual artist are executed darn near perfectly as evidenced here). His stories unfortunately, from Boogie Nights to Punch-Drunk Love and now to his latest, always leave me feeling empty. The Master is about the vulnerable, the damaged and the weak. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, now a war veteran returning home after the official end of World War II. He’s understandably effected, from the things he has done, the things he has seen, and being away from his normal life at home for years on end. Upon his return, these effects of PTSD are rearing it’s ugly head as he tries to settle back in. In his vulnerability he is looking for stability, and he thinks he’s found it when he stumbles across a boat containing a wedding party for the daughter of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka “The Master”. All of this set up works, but from that point forward it becomes clear that Anderson doesn’t have a story here. Sure, it’s about a cult and how a dynamic leader can pull people in despite their own obvious weaknesses. That’s clear. The film is said to be based lightly on L. Ron Hubbard and the Scientology movement, but the key word here is “lightly”. Stories about cult leaders are nothing new, and certainly we see plenty of it on television when real life events play out and are inevitably followed up with documentaries and TV movies to show and remind people of the abuses overseen by a central figure (both physical and worse, mental). But the average viewer is already aware and accustomed to this, we all know these people are shit peddlers and are damaged to degrees that can be called evil at times. Unfortunately Anderson doesn’t go beyond this. He doesn’t really have anything to tell us, or make us think about, that the average viewer hasn’t already seen or known about prior to entering the theater. So that’s why I say the word “lightly” here. I guess it’s about Scientology, but it could be about any religion or cult as what he is showing us here is so broad. Damaged man seeks salvation and guidance –> thinks he’s found it –> realizes his savior is just as weak, if not more –> frees himself. But what else? If only Anderson had gone grander and really tackled Scientology, a cult that does differ in it’s own crazy world when compared to the generalization of a cult that he offers us, then we would have had something. Or if he had given us more of Freddie’s life other than the basics, we may have cared more about the trap he was falling for in Dodd’s world. Or if he had exposed us to more likable qualities Freddie most certainly possesses, instead of all the damages in his life, he would have been endearing to the viewer. There ARE elements to the film that prevent this from being a failure. First, it looks fantastic. Seeing this in 70mm, while not being on a gigantic screen, doubled the image quality, and shows how beautiful film in general can be. The images were crisp and clear, giving the cinematography and production design (by long time David Lynch collaborator Jack Fisk) the type showcase any film of this caliber deserves, and without the harshness of digital projection’s “crystal clarity”. And it goes without saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of today’s greatest actors. He’s covered all the bases in his career brilliantly with an incredible amount of range, one moment revealing to his friend played by Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly that he “sharted” in his pants, to the next year winning a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote. Considering the limitations of the story here, he should be nominated for his understanding of Dodd, his background, and the resulting restraint he gives him. Hoffman, more than anything else, got me through the 2 1/2 hours running time, even when his character was so annoyingly frustrating I wanted to pull him out of the screen and gouge his eyes out (which anyone who prays on the weak-minded should be subjected to, but I digress). Joaquin Phoenix, however, I am not convinced of. He seemed good, but is he still doing his “crazy” routine? Is this his niche? Was he simply doing his bizarre Letterman appearance, but without a beard? He may have been adequate, but I’m not entirely convinced this wasn’t just an outlet for his already ingrained aggressive craziness. In the end, without a doubt, the look of the film is gorgeous. From the colors to the composition, it’s spot on, and the accompanying score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood was surprisingly fitting and moved the film along nicely. If only Anderson could get his story telling to match the caliber of his vision. It would have been rewarding if instead of just showing us the look of “an American classic” as has been said of this film, he could tell us the story of an American classic. That would have been masterful. I give this one 68 copies of The Cause, to burn in glorious 70mm technicolor.


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