Film Review: THE MASTER

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring; Joachim Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

I have put off writing about this movie for a few weeks hoping it would come together for me. The second hour pretty much fell off a cliff. And I have a few ideas about why.

PLOT-Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is an alcoholic drifter whose troubles may or may not be a result of his time in the Pacific. I would guess not. Phoenix is riveting as he brings to life a man who is all tics and torture. His posture alone makes us squirm with sympathy and more than a little distaste. Unable to find a place for himself in the sun of southern California, he drifts north where he meets up with Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) on a yacht where he’s stowed away. There is some unexplained rapport between them—perhaps largely based on Quell’s ability to fashion lethal cocktails.

The Cause, as Dodd calls his belief system, is murky and based on feeling good about yourself—a goal Quell could never pull off as Dodd soon understands. But he goes on the road with the group as an enforcer since hostile audiences occasionally attack Dodd at a meeting. Quell is a pitiful soul, but Dodd is too. Both seem happiest when they are quaffing down concoctions from Quell’s hand. Motor oil is a common ingredient.

This movie is supposedly loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and I think a more direct link would have helped. As it is, The CAUSE is too ill-defined to make sense. We have no idea why anyone would find this belief system or Hoffman attractive and especially not why Helen Sullivan (Dern) would finance it. Too many scenes go nowhere and the most insightful line in the movie comes from Dodd’s son who says, “”He’s making it up as he goes along.”

Hoffman also lacks the charisma needed to pull us along. We never believe in the Cause nor in Hoffman. But what we do believe in is the plight of a character like Quell, who wants so much to have a hero he can invest in. THE MASTER is a beautifully made movie with a hollow center. Perhaps this is what Anderson intended, but I wanted more.

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