No matter how good the director, no matter how strong the acting, no matter how compelling the material, any film with poor pacing is going to be a chore to watch.
The Master should have been a great film. All the pieces are in place – Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman almost always ensure a rewarding film experience. The subject matter of the film is rich, with a wide variety of dramatic possibilities and avenues for discussion. And yet, at two and half hours, The Master says nothing of consequence, fails to adequately develop its characters, and left me questioning why I bothered investing so much time into a film that appears to have so little purpose.
The Master is a character study, one that hopes to show us human nature and give us insight into others, into people that are inherently unknowable so that we might better understand ourselves. It makes a valiant effort to give the audience fascinating people with which to connect. Freddie Quell is an alcohol and sex addicted former sailor, who suffers from mental illness and is prone to violent outbursts at the slightest provocation. After returning from Pacific Theater in the 1950s, Freddie first finds work as a department store photographer and then later as a farm worker harvesting lettuce in California. He moonlights as a chemist that combines various toxic substances into potent drinks, which he distributes freely, especially to young women. After he inadvertently poisons a migrant farm worker, Freddie flees to stow away on board the first vessel he finds. This ship turns out to belong to our second character, Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is based heavily on author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He has created a lifestyle/religion dubbed “The Cause”, which is a pseudoscientific belief system that focuses on past lives and eternal existence. From the outside, “The Cause” is clearly an asinine cult where people speak endlessly about nothing, applauding each other for insights that could be picked apart by a small child. Dodd is drawn to Freddie for reasons that aren’t sufficiently explained. He allows Freddie to stay on the ship, recruiting him into “The Cause” and using him as something of an enforcer against those that criticize his ideas. Dodd sees Freddie as a potential validation for his “processing”. If he can “cure” Freddie, perhaps his ideas can become mainstream. The film focuses on the interactions between the two, showing the audience various stages of Freddie’s treatment at the hands of the Causites, led by Dodd.
If the film works, it works on one level as a discussion of mental illness. Freddie is very clearly disturbed, in a simple and straightforward kind of way. He is the picture of the effects of an unhealthy mind. Dodd, on the other hand, is a narcissistic egotist – someone we might expect to found a cult. He is persuasive, intelligent, successful, and above all, charming. The relationship between these two starkly different flavors of madness should be fascinating and powerful. The film asks us to consider the differences between the bus station war veteran with quirky habits and a David Koresh type leader with scores of followers. One may be the victim, one the victimizer, but they are both products of an unhinged mind. In The Master, Dodd doesn’t seem dangerous necessarily – he comes across as a swindler but not an abuser. But when you see the methods of treatment and the strain it places on Freddie, you have to wonder how Dodd is able to keep control over his flock. An entire room of people watches Freddie break down after a series of long, repetitive tasks with no obvious purpose. No one questions – they all pretend to understand. There is something powerful here about herd mentality and social pressures of religion, but to the film’s detriment, they aren’t explored.
Furthermore, we aren’t given the opportunity to understand the complicated relationship between Freddie and Dodd. They seem inexplicably linked, but for reasons known only to them. I wanted to understand more about the pair, about their past, about their futures. For some reason, director Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to keep any clear motivations for the characters a secret. Freddie and Dodd are played superbly by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. These are actors far above the typical Hollywood fare. If they can’t get the film’s message across, the message is too blurry to see. The film looks amazing, with beautiful scenes and deft camera work. Anderson’s directing style is distinct. But I wanted more – I needed the characters to be more transparent, more accessible. The film is long, a significant investment of time. Without a stronger payoff, it just seems like a waste.
The Master is not a film I’d want to see again. Unlike There Will Be Blood, which at times was brilliant, The Master reaches for something poignant and doesn’t quite grasp it. There is much to say about the people in the film. Sometimes understatement does the story a disservice. Had I been led just a little bit further, I might have been more interested.