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The Master (2012)

Slight of Hand

I'll never understand why religious fanatics get so upset when non-believers make a movie that attacks their faith. In 1988, Martin Scorsese came under fire for hypothesizing about the human side of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ--a film, for those of you still too afraid or offended to watch it, that saw the son of God ultimately conquer the world of the flesh and do the right thing. This month, we've seen mass outrage and violence in the Muslim world over a poorly executed trailer that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizing, power-hungry doofus.* And the Church of Scientology has spoken out against Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which it sees as an assault on its founder, sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard. 

Why all the outrage? Do these lifelong devotees believe that their deity of choice created the heavens and the Earth, but can't handle being ridiculed in a stupid movie? Or is it some kind of cosmic test for the flock? If they don't express enough anger or set a predetermined number of cars on fire, are they in danger of not getting into heaven? If that's the case, have they considered just what kind of cruel, childish Thing they aim to spend eternity with?

As an ex-Catholic, I find the whole thing very confusing. When I was a kid, Christians' greatest weapon against infidels was an armada of rap-music-banning Concerned Parents groups. They've since evolved to bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors (in church); kudos for that, I guess. But the question remains: if God is so upset with a particular person or practice, why not just send down some good, old-fashioned fire-from-heaven and leave the parishioners out of it?

I could maybe understand The Almighty's nervousness if a particular movie were in danger of convincing lots of people to question their faith. But in the case of The Master, that's an impossibility. First, this nearly two-and-a-half-hour art film is Oscar bait through and through--meaning that, like The Artist, The Tree of Life, War Horse, and The King's Speech, there's absolutely zero chance of it catching on in popular culture. Second, the only people whose lives will be deeply impacted by Anderson's latest opus--indeed, the only people likely to even see it--are those who are professionally paid to write such things, plus the smaller subset of cineastes who cling to brand-name "niche" directors.

That's not to say Oscar-nominated films aren't worthy of some praise. In fact, there's a lot to love about The Master. First, the story: Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a sex-crazed, lunatic sailor who spends the years after World War II getting fired from odd jobs and enjoying his hobby as a maker of household-chemical-moonshine. One night, he steals away on a party boat commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed author, doctor, philosopher, and the founder of a tenuous modern religion called "The Cause". The seemingly proper con man is instantly drawn to Freddie's strange ways, and invites him into his fold.

Much of the film wanders as freely as Freddie does, letting its story unfurl as a series of vignettes that sometimes connect and sometimes don't--at least not in obvious ways. As Freddie becomes immersed in Dodd's bizarre world of pseudo-hypnotic "readings" of his members' past lives and connections to their alien forebears, he gets seduced by having proxy power over the kinds of people who used to have power over him. He becomes Dodd's muscle, his confidante, and, ultimately, his crush.

A handful of other big ideas pop up during the movie's first half, building to what promises to be a rousing, bloody head. Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), believes Freddie is too dangerous to be part of a movement that has already drawn national criticism for being kooky. His daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), secretly flirts with Freddie--to the idisappointed, impotent rage of her passive-aggressive husband, Clark (Rami Malek). Dodd's son, Val (Jesse Plemons) appears to be in on his father's grand joke, but is either too scared or too in love with the lifestyle to leave.

Toss in subplots about the teenage girl Freddie left behind in the aimless days immediately following his service; the reporter whom Freddie and Clark rough up after he openly challenged Dodd during a fundraiser; or a quarter-dozen other non-starters that comprise the so-called story, and The Master's big problem comes into focus: Anderson doesn't sew any of these threads into a cohesive picture. By the three-quarter mark, I realized that the writer/director had built his house of cards on a rickety table called "momentum"; the result is a showcase for stunning costumes, authentic set design, powerhouse performances, and some gorgeous scenery--but no real growth or resolution for the characters we've invested a great deal of time in.

Maybe that's all some people need out of a movie, but I demand more. Frankly, I'm getting tired of the epic arthouse picture whose slavish attention to detail touches every facet except the screenplay. Like other recent films of this kind, particularly The Tree of Life, defenders have parroted the line, "You can't even begin to understand the movie unless you see it twice." Maybe that theory holds water if you wander into this movie instead of The House at the End of the Street, but most Anderson fans have their brains cranked to eleven by the time the lights dim.

I submit that The Master is all show and no go. Hoffman and Phoenix are electrifying, even in their quieter, conversational moments.** And Anderson maintains his perfect track record of immersion by realizing 1950 America as surely as he did Boogie Nights' seedy, 70s California valley or There Will Be Blood's black-lunged, turn-of-the-century oil fields. But Boogie Nights had a much broader narrative scope, comprised of threads that not only thrilled and horrified--and which also came together by film's end. And while I've only watched There Will Be Blood once, it's the kind of movie I would watch again; Daniel Day Lewis is the main draw in the picture. But the screenplay is strong enough that he's not the only draw.

In the end, The Master is as glossy and empty an experience as it believes the religions are that it aims to deconstruct.*** The Weinstein Company and the film's rabid supporters will spend lots of money touting the greatness of Anderson's "masterpiece". But don't feel bad if you ignore the hype. These people are just deluded hucksters handing out prayer pamphlets to disinterested people who know a fraud when they see one. 

Note: Perhaps the greatest weapon in The Master's hype arsenal is the mythic 70mm experience. Only a handful of theatres in America are equipped to show Anderson's film in the gigantic aspect ratio in which it was meant to be seen. I kicked myself for a month after missing out on an advanced screening here in Chicago. Having now watched the movie, though, I'm completely over my disappointment.

Though the movie looks great, there's nothing here that I haven't seen before, in terms of story or visual landscape. In the one scene swiped (knowingly or unknowingly) from Lawrence of Arabia, all I could think of was how thrilling it was to see that movie in 70mm twenty-plus years ago. War and conquest are superb backdrops for such grandeur. Dinner parties and an overly recycled shot of the ocean? Not so much.

*Accusations that pale in comparison to his being portrayed at all: depictions of the man are forbidden in that tradition.

**Phoenix strays into Jack Nicholson-parody territory towards the end, but I blame that on the script's having given his character nowhere else to go but the places we've already seen him destroy.

***Hell, "deconstruct" is too strong a word; anyone expecting a savaging of Scientology will likely wonder if the actual attacks were left on the cutting room floor.

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