The Master – A Review

It’s always a mistake for me to have a glass of wine (OK maybe more than a single glass on this occasion) before going to the cinema at the end of a long day.  There’s something about the comfy seats and the darkness that just encourages heaviness in the eyelids, so I may have missed a few short interludes in the late showing of  The Master last week, but not as many as the friend with whom I went.

And while I can’t really say that the film is a gripping one, it is most definitely an interesting one.  Set in a stylised 1950s America, it tracks the meeting of Freddie Quill, a troubled drunken ex serviceman played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic charlatan leader of a small cult, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The director Paul Thomas Anderson has apparently side stepped the suggestions that the film is about the beginnings of Scientology.  Apart from having to constantly walk around the enthusiasts outside their shop on Tottenham Court Road when I worked in an office around the corner, I don’t know anything beyond ‘Tom Cruise’ about the cult, so I can’t comment on whether or not there are parallels, but what the movie did do was paint a vivid picture of an ego driven guru making up his philosophy as he goes along.

The first scenes of the film focus on Freddie Quill, a sailor, clearly suffering some kind of psychological problems, drunk most of the time on the moonshine he concocts himself from cough medicine and industrial alcohol.  Discharged from the Navy, we follow him through a series of jobs of increasing desperation, before he stows away on a pleasure boat on which a wedding party is underway.  There he meets Dodds, who is amused by him, and who cannot resist trying to bring him into the group, as a guinea pig for his developing strategies for dominating his followers.  Subsequently, egged on by Dodd’s zealot wife, played by Amy Adams, Quill takes on the role of enforcer, beating up rationalists who argue against the daftness of the teachings.   Following a parting of the ways, Dodds makes it clear that Quill, by leaving has become a mortal enemy from which there can be no return.

I enjoyed the performances; the camera comes close to all the faces from a vantage point somewhere near their chins, so the view is of a slightly uncomfortable angle of all the crags and creases of each expression.  Joaquin Phoenix, especially, has to bear close examination of his every move, and I found his an eerily convincing depiction of a character largely bewildered by the world even when he is sober.  He has also curved his body into the stooped and shambling shape of a serious drinker.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor I would watch doing anything, although I know there are some who don’t agree.  I thought he was clever in the way he portrayed the narcissist, avuncular and intense until anyone questioned him, when he would lash out with sudden ferocity.  I particularly enjoyed a scene between him and Laura Linney as one of his wealthy followers.  Dodds had just brought out a new book of doctrine, and she had noticed that where before he had talked about ‘recalling’, he now used the word ‘imagining’, and she asked if this represented a change in the teaching.  Clearly caught out in having made a mistake he hadn’t intended, he berated her for questioning, and I felt certain she wouldn’t be making any more donations.

Overall the film is beautifully shot, the vistas are wide and richly coloured, and the period details are of that imagined golden era of post war America that may or may not ever have existed.  The narrative is subtle, nothing is spelled out, it’s a series of vignettes, almost, gradually building up into a story, although I did feel that it rather lost its way towards the end.  I didn’t really understand how the break between Dodds and Quill came about, as it felt totally unexpected and random, although perhaps that might have been the point.

It was also interesting that neither of the main characters really changed over the course of the film; each was the same at the end as he was at the beginning.  Given my recent comments about the strictures of the contemporary orthodoxy that every story has to represent some kind of ‘journey’, I’m pleased to say that I quite liked this feature of the film, that for all the gimcrack philosophy and ridiculous exercises to which Quill is subjected by Dodds, he manages to escape with his faults in tact.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

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  1. Haven’t seen. Want to. Also a big fan of PSH.


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