The arthouse director has made a sequence of high-quality films, but his latest - about a religious cult - is a boring mess.
Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson is something of a miracle worker in American arthouse filmmaking. His notable feats include turning meat-headed comedian Adam Sandler into a credible, dramatic leading man in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, and, more recently, managing to make a film that was nearly three hours long, about a grasping oil tycoon, not only engrossing but one of the best films of the new millennium (There Will Be Blood).
Given his gift for taking seemingly unworkable subject matter – as well as often unlikeable characters and inept actors – and turning them into gripping and poignant narratives, The Master, his sixth feature, should have been a cakewalk.
But despite boasting two leads who - unlike Adam Sandler - are among the best of their generation, a historical setting ripe for psychological exploration, and the endless dramatic fodder and intrigue the inclusion of a cult affords, The Master is frustratingly unfulfilling and often eye-bleedingly dull.
It tells the story of an isolated Second World War veteran who is taken in by a charismatic cult leader. Dismissed from service with post-traumatic stress disorder, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) lands back in civilian life at the very centre of postwar American conformity. He gets a job as a department-store photographer, but soon becomes more and more revolted at the clean-cut and starchy people he spends his days taking pictures of. Prone to fits of violence, fuelled by homemade alcohol and sexual frustration, he soon finds himself on the outer reaches of civilised society – taking a job as field-hand, before being run out of town for unintentionally poisoning a fellow worker with his potent hooch.
On the lam, shit-faced and with no where else to go, he stows away on a luxury yacht, under the command of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader and ‘Master’ of a new scientific-spiritualist cult, The Causers. Expecting perhaps to be thrown overboard, Freddie is met with a sinisterly warm welcome by Dodd and his disciples. He agrees to join in their holy mission, but he is only allowed to do so under the condition that he submits to a kind of hypnotic catechism Dodd terms ‘formal processing’.
Coming barely 30 minutes into this long and plodding dirge, Freddie’s first session is easily the best scene in the film. Drilling him about his dark family background, his lost love and his depraved (occasionally incestuous) impulses, we see Dodd peel through the layers of Freddie’s psyche, leaving him in a creepy and bizarre state of euphoria. Freddie becomes increasingly absorbed into the Causer religion, which, with heavy nods to Scientology, preaches that human souls are immortal, interplanetary beings, whose innate perfection is marred by the barbarism and depravity of flesh-bound human existence.
At this point, Anderson appears to have the beginnings of an interesting treatise, if not about Scientology itself – the threat posed by its fearsome legal team rules out any overt references – then at least how cults in general manage to cast their spell: Freddie’s willing absorption into the Causer family perhaps reflecting how a skilled and charismatic conman can manipulate a marginalised down-and-out with the promise of transcendence.
The rest of the film, however, eschews any further exploration of these ideas to focus solely on the quasi-romantic love affair brewing between Dodd and Freddie. After a while, you start to wonder if Freddie has been fooled at all. He moves in and out of the Causer fold and despite being well aware of his Freddie’s weak loyalties, Dodd keeps welcoming him back. As such, their relationship seems to be sealed by an unspoken kinship rather than their shared commitment to the Causer faith.
As proceedings wear on, any whiff of that original intensity is completely lost. Hoffman is effortlessly charismatic as the ruddy-faced conman, while Phoenix’s gaunt-faced Freddie is somehow both repellent and likeable, but even their exemplary efforts don’t manage to anchor this wandering film. Anderson eventually loses control of his flabby story and it ends with a rather unsatisfying whimper.
It may be his own fault for setting the bar so high, but there’s no escaping the fact that The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first real stinker.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.