When the director of one of my favourite films of the past twenty years (Magnolia) starts getting rave reviews for his latest film, it is, I hope, understandable that I would develop high expectations and rush out to see it on the first day of its release in Winnipeg.
As I have stated before, high expectations are always a mistake. If only I had thought to check Roger Ebert’s review of the film (he gave The Master only **+), my expectations might have been more realistic. Instead, after seeing dozens of four-star reviews, I became so convinced I would love The Master that I was telling people I was finally going to see a film which was sure to be in my Top Ten of the year. Alas, that is far from certain.
What The Master does offer is some of the best acting you’ll ever see. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are phenomenal. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a disturbed man with a taste for serious alcohol who served in the navy during WWII. Five years later (1950), his erratic behaviour and addiction to poison find him hiding on a ship, which is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his wife (Adams) as well as a group of Dodd’s followers.
It is obvious that Dodd is supposed to be L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of that strange religion called Scientology. Dodd (the master) takes a special interest in Freddie and tries, for the rest of the film, to ‘convert’ him. For his part, Freddie becomes a loyal servant who’ll do anything to protect Dodd but is more interested in booze than religion. The odd relationship between Dodd and Freddie becomes the heart of The Master.
Besides the outstanding acting, The Master boasts amazing cinematography as well as excellent writing and direction from Paul Thomas Anderson. Many of the scenes are mesmerizing. Unfortunately, a couple of extended scenes didn’t work for me at all. I got the repeated sense that the film just wasn’t going anywhere with its great characters and dialogue. I found it very hard to sympathize with Freddie and impossible to sympathize with anyone else and this obviously didn’t help. Overall, my lack of emotional engagement was enough to significantly detract from the brilliance of what I was watching.
As a result, I can only give The Master a disappointed ***+. My mug is up, but Top Ten isn’t likely (though this has been a very disappointing year thus far).