‘The Master,’ Pretentious Art Film or ‘Master’piece?

The Master — * Star

My first instinct is to tell you that after watching The Master, the new film by director Paul Thomas Anderson (of Boogie Nights fame) is that it is pretentious shit. And part of that is because of all the rave reviews I saw of this film before going  into the theater. I have a fairly high tolerance for self-indulgent directors and wandering films that provide no guidance for the audience as I can always read up on any visual cues or background information later, but halfway into this film I started to get bored and really annoyed. I also felt this from everyone around me and the crowd was an older, introspective group who, like me, was looking for a literary experience (based on the rave reviews) and some insight into how cults may have started after World War 2.

If you don’t already know, The Master mirrors Scientology (in the film they call it “The Cause”) and founder L. Ron Hubbard. The producers and I believe even the director are quick to dismiss that the film is a critique of the religion–it’s supposed to be a period piece fueled by character studies; only observations with no judgments. That is exactly true. The Master isn’t a  critique of anything, purely observational which is the problem. We feel so damned lost with these characters that it’s like a bad dinner conversation that’s gone off into some bizarre direction where you can’t remember if there ever was a topic of interest. Then throw in some odd sexual moments for additional confusion. It also suffers because the film isn’t dangerous. You would think with a director taking on subject matter inspired by L. Ron Hubbard that the film would have some bite. Not so, there’s no teeth and we’re slowly gummed into apathy.

The only good thing I can say about the film are the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as his protege  Freddie Quell. Joaquin especially seems to transform himself into the ultimate war vet loser who can’t embrace the new religion but is loyal to its leader since he has no other friends.

It’s not that Director Anderson had to take a stance against Scientology, but he should have explored it more than what was pictured. Yes, he did take some time to focus on “processing” which is code for Scientology’s “auditing” and it did show some of the techniques used to break down a person’s resistance to it’s strange ideas. However, as there was no apparent transformation of Freddie Quell (he starts off as a boozer with violent tendencies and after a long session of manipulativel exercises continues his life in the same manner as shown by his attack on a book publisher). We learn nothing. The excuse is that the film is really about Freddie Quell, but Quell is not likable in the least and he’s not even that fascinating from that perspective. I found him a dull character study, the guy who should have been left on the side while we spent time with Lancaster Dodd and what made him start a new religion.

According to Wikipedia, Tom Cruise was allowed to screen The Master ahead of time and report back to Scientology headquarters, like the good soldier that he is. The offense they took was that at one point in the film Lancaster Dodd’s son tells Freddie Quell that his dad is just making it up as he goes. In other words, L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer, just made up Scientology too. Honestly, Scientology doesn’t have much to worry about except the drooling critics. The public at large isn’t going to care about this film and even geeks like me are likely not to recommend it (as we can see here with this review). It may be worth one curiosity viewing  if you can tolerate some of the boredom and want to see the performances, but expect to be checking your watch (when is this over?). There is some random nudity (such as a party scene which I don’t know if it was meant to be real or imagined by Freddie Quell), fart humor, a hand job and masturbation, in case that helps (though again, these small offenses add nothing to the story).

If the director wanted to make a film just for himself, he succeeded, but for an audience it’s frustrating. I really went in wanting to like a film that dared to show Scientology in its infancy. All we got is a tease of the potential filled with unexplained moments and yawns.