A mentally lost and physically sick Naval veteran of WWII returns home with an uncertain future until he meets and forms a relationship with a charismatic leader of a movement called The Cause.
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
Runtime: 137 Minutes
Popcorn Score: Medium Popcorn with Butter
I perhaps was too excited to see a movie that pointed out all of the obvious flaws of the bizarre and “cultish” religion that we have today in Scientology. I was eager to see an interpretation by an extremely talented screenwriter/director, Paul Thomas Anderson, that delved into the religion, its creator, and I was hoping a commentary about what it is and what it does to the people within. I don’t know why that is what I was hoping for; perhaps it is because I would find that type of look into any religion interesting, but nevertheless it is what I was hoping for.
I saw this movie in its opening weekend which means my $16 for two tickets is included in the roughly $5 million opening weekend box office totals. I know that the filmmakers and cast of a true piece of art like this do not care about the box office figures, those are for the studio executives and tabloids to worry about. But in a day and age where a typical blockbuster can reach upwards of 200 million for an opening weekend, I think it says something about the American population that so few people are interested in a movie that is almost a lock to be a good film and are inclined to only show up to the latest superhero, animation or action movie. But I will leave that argument for another day.
As I read more about The Master, prior to seeing the film, I read how the filmmaker and its stars were growing tired of the questions about the film’s comparison to scientology. They would skirt the topic and occasionally downright dismiss the argument that it was a “scientology movie” suggesting that it is about much more than just that. In The Master the relatable movement in question is called “The Cause”. There are similar doctrines such as the spirit being an everlasting form that takes shape in different bodies over trillions of years. And the “processing” in the movie seems quite similar to the auditing process in Scientology, but the movie does not make a firm decision on what it is, or what the significance of this movement is. It chooses to focus almost entirely on the relationship between The Master and what would be at least one suitable title, the protégé.
In this case, the Master is Lancaster Dodd, played meritoriously by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the protégé is Freddie Quell played with equivalent excellence by Joaquin Phoenix. We are first introduced to Quell, an obviously broken and emaciated man, defeated by, amongst other things, the war and homemade concoctions of alcohol. Once peace time is announced on his ship, he takes no time in escaping down below the deck to drain the fuel from the torpedoes to make his medicinal poison. We also see the withered man drinking formulas made from photo developing chemicals and household bathroom supplies. He is an unpredictable and sick man that slithers, murmurs and is difficult to watch.
Upon meeting on Dodd’s ship, Quell as a stowaway immediately intrigues The Master. Perhaps he sees someone he can help, or maybe it’s more use to show off his movement’s powers. At the very least we learn from Dodd’s resolute wife Peggy (Amy Adams) that her husband is inspired by him. From then on, the movie focuses above all else on the relationship between the two.
It is quite ambiguous explaining the type of relationship that they have, you get the impression that they Dodd sees something of himself in Quell, almost like a father figure, but more like they are each one half to a hole. There are many different ways to interpret it but I would imagine that Dodd feels like if he can truly fix this broken drunkard, that would be a proof for him and his training, and that Quell who is lost will grab on to just about anything that might work. Although it is never made clear that he himself wants to get better, he is determined and at times shows signs of strength. He is also driven to some degree by the memories of a teenaged girl he left behind before the war with a promise of returning.
I enjoyed when the movie dug deeper into methods and beliefs of “The Cause”, there is a scene where Dodd is performing what looks like a hypnosis to an elderly woman in a supporters mansion when he is interrupted by a man questioning his beliefs. It results in a profane yelling match between the two showing that Dobb does not appreciate and is not accustom to people questioning him. This happens again later on in the film when he is questioned about the terminology in his latest book by what we believe is one of his most loyal supporters. He shows his true signs of aggression and weakness when being questioned which is different than the confident and controlling yet somewhat jovial man that he typically is.
The film moves along never drawing much of a conclusion. It is a study of the relationship without offering too much of a revelation, retribution, or growth to either side. It might be easy to wonder as you walk out of the theater if you “got it”, and I questioned that for a moment, but I don’t think that is the right question because I am confident that I didn’t miss anything. It is simply that it doesn’t’ lead to the pinnacle that we are used to seeing in movies.
For this reason, in conclusion, I find the story to be a bit lacking in entertainment, yet too brilliant with its performances, style, and directing to discount it too much. I think that it is a tremendously put together and performed film that could have brought a bit more substance to the story than what it ended up being, which is an engaging but not overly grasping relationship story.
Medium Popcorn with Butter.