The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Review: The Master (UK Cert 15)

I wanted to like The Master; not only like, but enjoy. I've enjoyed some of Paul Thomas Anderson's other films (Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood especially) and it has two actors that I like (Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman). On paper, it seemed like a cert. The reality is somewhat different.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man with a few issues. Demobbed from the Navy after the end of the Second World War, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he is truly damaged goods: a violent borderline alcoholic who can't hold down a job and has sex on the brain. He stows aboard a ship which is being used by 'The Cause', a pseudoscientific cult led by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Rather than throwing him overboard, Dodd takes Quell under his wing, seeing a chance to redeem him.

Quell is a fundamentally unlikeable character which made it difficult for me to have any empathy towards him or even care about his 'journey'. It didn't help that Phoenix's performance felt a bit hammy in places; the constant slurring and mumbling got annoying as well. As things dragged on, my patience with Phoenix's mugging and mumbling wore out so- by the time of the final meeting between Quell and Dodd, which should have been a real powerhouse (akin to the end of There Will Be Blood)- I couldn't have cared less what happened.

Hoffman is miles better as Dodd, a charismatic orator with a mass following. The Cause seks to use what seems to be past-life regression to deal with present-day issues and Hoffman at least makes the cod philosophy Dodd espouses sound believable. There are two moments where The Cause is challenged; one by a sceptical onlooker at a gathering and the other by a member of The Cause over the use of the word 'imagine' rather than 'recall' (maybe giving credence to Dodd's son's dismissive statement that he's making it up as he goes along). Both times Dodd explodes. There's a dangerous underswell in Dodd which isn't really utilised. In the final scene, Hoffman manages to make 'Slow Boat To China' seem tender and sinister at the same time.

Perhaps the best- and most surprising- performance in the entire film comes from Amy Adams, who plays Dodd's wife Peggy. There are some intriguing hints that she is 'the power behind the throne' and is a staunch supporter of Dodd's ideology almost to the point of fanaticism. She is underused, perhaps, but makes an impact every time she's on screen. It's a performance full of steel and ice, miles away from the family friendly good girl of Enchanted or Julie & Julia.

The 'processing' scenes at the beginning are quite intense and filmed well, but several other 'treatments' (such as Peggy reading sexually explicit prose to Quell, and Dodd asking Quell to walk back and forth between the wall and the window) seemed baffling to me. There was some controversy when the project was first announced that it was inspired directly by Scientology; people with a better grounding in those practices than I could probably point out the deeper similarities, but there does appear to be at least a passing correlation between Scientology and The Cause.

My main issue with The Master comes from the script: in places, it has the turgid, pretentious air that can sometimes come when you have an auteur behind the lens. Plus there's too little that is adequately explained- don't get me wrong, some ambiguity can provoke interest (whilst spoon-feeding the audience can be patronising and unwieldy) but there is such a thing as being too elliptical. There's some surreal imagery which doesn't add anything and Jonny Greenwood's jarring, intrusive and atonal score got to be very irritating.

Sadly, some good performances can't redeem this muddled mess of a film.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5


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