September 21, 2012

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's darkly funny film not based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. You see, his name has been changed to Lancaster Dodd, so it's clearly not about L. Ron Hubbard, I repeat, not about L. Ron Hubbard. Indeed, Anderson has denied that The Master is a roman a clef for Hubbard and his kooky celebrity cult, but it's pretty obvious who was the inspiration for this bizarre little movie, which features two powerful performances: from Joaquin Phoenix as an alcoholic, severely emotionally troubled WW2 veteran, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the magnetic personality and self-appointed religious leader who's trying to redirect people to their past selves, which he claims have been imprisoned by the negative thinking of culture. Or something like that.

The movie itself is beautifully crafted but aloof, in a way that There Will Be Blood, Anderson's last film, was not. You're frequently feeling like you don't know who to trust, and perhaps that's what was intended here. It's certainly trying to look cinematic, and Anderson takes much time to plot his narrative visually. At times, The Master feels like a Modernist novel on the big screen: Time doesn't always move in a chronological order, and characters don't always do things that make perfect logical sense. Plus there are moments when it's pretty clear we're seeing things from the skewed perspective of Phoenix's character, who in one scene, which takes place at the Philadelphia home of one of Dodd's most devoted followers (played by Laura Dern), imagines that all the women in the room are stark naked.

Anderson is not giving us the traditional "biopic," (such a detestable word, and a sub-genre that frequently produces detestable movies), for which we can all be more than a little grateful. Instead of giving us the sweeping account of L. Ron Hubbard's rise to prominence, Anderson zooms in on a few years in Hubbard's/Dodd's life (the film is set mostly in 1950), and more particularly, on the relationship between Dodd and Freddie Quell, Phoenix's character, which resembles both master and servant and psychiatrist and patient.

Because Anderson picks a particular moment in his character Dodd's career as a cult figure, he eschews much of the criticism he might have acquired for doing a full-fledged biographical tale. As obvious as the allusion to L. Ron Hubbard is, we're not getting a bunch of historical facts and most importantly the big dramatic ending that climaxes with Hubbard's death after years in exile. Instead we're watching the tension of the overly devoted relationships between Dodd and his family and between Dodd and Quell. The Master seems perfectly content to be suggestive, and resists making too many judgments either way when it comes to its main character's pop psych-religion. This resistance of Anderson's becomes a fun gimmick: we can relax and enjoy a weird movie that we know has to be based on this bizarre religion, and yet the movie doesn't really take sides. It's not offering a pronouncement about Scientology, but a window into the unusual relationship between the two main characters.

There are things in The Master that don't quite click, however. The movie is so carefully calculated to be and look cinematic that at times it ceases to be entertainment. And you can only be impressed with the art of the cinema for so long before you become bored. The strength of the performances bolsters the movie, even if the characters themselves seem to further the alienation between film and audience. It's worth seeing, though.

Written by the director. With Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty, Kevin J. O'Connor, Joshua Close, and Patty McCormack. 137 minutes.

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