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REVIEW: The Master (2012) March 18, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Hollywood is often described as “dream factory” and, therefore, it is understood that its main business is selling fiction instead of truth. So, when Hollywood filmmakers have to choose between telling history and telling fiction, they often opt for the latter, mostly because facts tend to be too boring and not attractive enough for audience. In some rare instances, however, fiction wins over history not because of filmmakers’ artistic or commercial consideration, but because facts, when properly presented, might step on the toes of some vengeful and powerful individuals or organisations. Even some of the greatest filmmakers had to take those things into account. Citizen Kane, the world’s most famous film à clef,  is the best know example of such practice. In more recent years, such films are rarity, mostly because Hollywood filmmakers these days tend not to pick unnecessary fights and when they actually do, they are very careful not to admit it openly. One of such examples could be found in The Master, 2012 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Plot begins at the end of Second World War, when US Navy sailor Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has to face serious adjusting to civilian life. Psychological traumas suffered during the war and before it, however, make such adjustment very difficult and Freddie often indulges in self-destructive behaviour and alcohol, the latter provided by moonshine made by his own personal recipe. After losing a job and causing the death of a man who tasted his product Freddie runs to San Francisco and finds a shelter on yacht. When he wakes up, it turns out that the yacht is owned by Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann), eccentric self-proclaimed philosopher and founder a movement called “Cause”. Dodd is thrilled with Freddie’s moonshine, but even more fascinated by his character and sees him as a perfect guinea pig to test his bold theories and bizarre psychological procedures called “Processing”. Quell joins the “Cause” and becomes Dodd’s most enthusiastic supporter. Dodd’s other followers, most notably his wife Peggy (played by Amy Adams), are increasingly troubled by his presence, mostly because his continuing driking and propensity for unnecessary violence compromises the movement and their founder’s teaching.

Before and during the production a lot of free publicity for The Master was created by speculations that the film was a biopic dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of controversial Church of Scientology. A Hollywood film was, however, unlikely to deal with that subject directly, mainly because many of important Hollywood personalities (including some of Anderson’s close friends) were Scientologists, and the Church of Scientology was not known for not taking criticism kindly. So, Anderson was forced to deal with such hot potato indirectly; first by creating fictious versions of Hubbard and Scientology under different names and then by portraying the early years of Scientology from the perspective of an outsider.

Another set of speculations dealt with this film being a potential favourite for Academy Awards, especially in acting categories. The Master featured two very strong roles played by two very talented artists. Phoenix, who built his reputaion by playing troubled and often unlikeable characters is working very hard with Freddie, creating a very convincing and at times disturbing portrayal of alcoholic and sex-obsessed sociopath whose wartime traumas might be just a convenient cover for some much deeper issues. Hoffmann is, however, much more sympathetic but also very impressive as a person whose intellectual and other achievements don’t match his claims but who nevertheless compensates such gap with great deal of charm and charisma.

Two great acting performances, however, can’t compensate for the serious script deficiencies and Anderson’s apparent loss of focus. The plot is simply too slow and loses much of its focus in the second half when Freddie’s presence in the organisation leads to inevitable conflict which is resolved in a way which is both banal and confusing. Even more confusing is the actual ending in which Freddie has to finally face the fact that he and Dodd would have to go separate ways. Anderson wrote and directed those scenes in such a way that it is unclear whether they are actual events or Freddie’s dream. By that time anyone, apart from Anderson’s most die hard fans would stop caring and would probably appreciate film being over. The Master in the end didn’t need damaging controversies or some behind-the-scene Scientologist conspiracy to fail in getting awards and become a big disappointment.

RATING: 5/10