Films like The Masterreally cause me to wonder if I am normal or not. Billed as a film about – loosely – the enigmatic L Ron Hubbard and the cult of Scientology (in which I dabbled as a teenager), it has gleaned outstanding reviews from critics whom I admire enormously: it was both Peter Bradshaw’s and Xan Brooks’s film of the year . Joachin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams all got nominated for Oscars, for goodness sake, and Anderson made, among other films, the revered There Will Be Blood.
Perhaps that should have set off the warning lights – I didn’t care for that film much either, even if Dan Day Lewis won an Oscar for it. Anderson fans are convinced he will go down in history as the great art-house director whose films are too cerebral to earn him Hollywood’s highest accolade. To my mind it might just be because he makes impenetrably long films. But he’s got time – he’s only 43, and has made more populist films like Boogie Nights.
Anyway, back to The Master. Set in post war America, a recently de-mobbed and deeply disturbed Freddie Quell (Phoenix), who suffers from both sex and alcohol addictions, survives by making and selling moonshine to unsuspecting labourers. Fleeing from poisoning one of his customers, he is attracted by the bright lights on a conveniently anchored ship under the helm of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), leader of the ‘The Cause’.
Borrowing from elements of Scientology, this cult centres around the belief that the earth is trillions of years old and that our current troubles are vested in the past; Freddie is the perfect lab rat for the Master to prove his thesis.
Dodd’s relationship with Freddie is, however, more complex: first he is drawn to the bizarre cocktails that Freddie conjures out of bleach, gasoline and the like and, secondly, there is a frisson of homoeroticism that’s draws the two together.
For his part, Freddie takes up The Cause with a vengeance, literally – pelting naysayers and beating up non-believers with a violence that goes hand in hand with his psychosis. Dodd’s sycophantic coterie of followers include not only his new young wife (Amy Adams) who starts off as a Freddie fan and then, unsurprisingly, given his bad influence on her hubby, turns against him, but also his rather dull son, who utters the only meaningful line in the film: ‘He’s making all this up as he goes along’. Interestingly this gave Tom Cruise, Scientology’s biggest advocate, the most enormous sense of humour failure at a preview screening.
Certainly Phoenix’s performance is worth an Oscar nomination; he has shrunk his normally healthy frame into a hunched, pathetic-looking victim, whose rat-like glances take everything in, yet give off a sense of vulnerability which is devastatingly attractive to women – and to Dodd of course. Hoffman, great player that he is, perfectly fits the suit of the smug, charismatic leader of a cult that has women in particular swooning in his presence. Together they create an unsettling symbiosis.
The echtfilm critics have revelled in the direction and very limited narrative thread – in particular the episodic nature of the shots, linked by close-ups of the boat’s wake, all of which are to represent the aimless, yet turbulent, path of Freddie’s life. They pay tribute to what they see as Anderson’s allegory on the making of post-war modern America. Praise is also heaped on Jonny Greenwood’s score, and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr’s decision to shoot on 65mm film and then project it in 70mm, giving the film an unprecedented sense of clarity and sharpness.
Herein lies the problem and probably the reason why this ‘masterpiece’ didn’t get any nods for best director or film: for the likes of Husband and I (and maybe you too) it’s all too slow, long, drawn-out and, for much of the time seems to be going nowhere. It is essentially a critic’s film.
Yes, it is an intellectual exposé of the arguments for the meaning of life, the universe, the power of religion, and the role of charlatan leaders in both religion and politics, but perhaps rather self-indulgently created for the delight of the director and his fans at the expense of the rather more regular cinema-goer. The allegory is lost in translation: perhaps I am just not clever enough to ‘get’ it. For me, the best thing about this film is that it annoyed the hell out of Tom Cruise!