Some thoughts on The Master

(Spoiler warning, inasmuch as the movie can be spoiled)

Some filmmakers, you automatically give the benefit of the doubt. Before The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson already had somewhere between three and five masterpieces under his belt (Boogie NightsMagnolia and There Will Be Blood are hard to argue against, and I’ve heard cases made for Punch Drunk Love and Hard Eight); it’s the kind of track record that makes me think that anything in The Master that doesn’t work for me has more to do with me than the film. But when we’re talking about a film that looks at the birth of a cult, that line of thinking seems particularly fIlawed.

Let me backtrack. And disclaim. This isn’t a review of The Master. If you’re looking to find out if it’s worth watching, well, science (aka Rotten Tomatoes) says that it’s 84% worthwhile, which is 10% less than Looper but still pretty good. In other words, if you’re a fan of dense, pretty and confounding art house movies, this is certainly one of those, and if you want to see all of the major Oscar contenders, this one’s absolutely in the pool. It’s worth watching. But I’m not convinced it’s great.

There’s one thing that it isn’t, and I can say this much with confidence. People rolled their eyes when Anderson said that his movie wasn’t about Scientology, but he was being honest. Sure, the movie’s about an author developing a “scientific” religion that attributes people’s physical and mental ailments to events that occurred in past lives hundreds, thousands or trillions (“with a ‘T'”) of years ago, so yep, that’s got some Scientology. But that’s not the movie; it’s a setting, a place for Anderson to hang an examination of the nature of man. Or of those who would claim to be able to lay bare an examination of man. Or maybe just of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s method acting chops, to politely paraphrase a friend.

Anderson uses the two actors in roles that will probably become textbook examples of foils–so blatantly in some scenes that it’s straight-up hilarious. Due to PTSD, Phoenix is pure id, a tangle of sex, aggression and sexual aggression who can seem charismatic in small doses but is actually more frightening and sad, a point perfectly made in an early scene with a sand sculpture. Hoffman’s Master likes to think he’s excised such impulses and is on the path to raising mankind to its essential “perfect” state, but while his sincerity isn’t in doubt, his sanity is. As is his independence. Anyone who introduces himself on first meeting as “above all, a man” is likely compensating for something, and the Master’s weaknesses come through in brief flashes of profane anger and sexual weakness. One scene in particular hammers this home, showing the (ahem) grip his wife has on him and where the power truly lies in the relationship.

For all of The Master’s two-hour-plus run time, there are three scenes that are sticking with me as important, and all three are anchored in sex. Two I’ve already mentioned–the sand sculpture and the helping hand–but maybe the most important is at the end of the movie (again, spoiler, sorta), when Phoenix turns everything that Hoffman tried to teach him and reduces it to a sexual game. What was meant to be a psychologically penetrating act becomes just a way to occupy time with a bar pickup, and coming so soon after Hoffman’s serenade and spurned sentiment, the implication seems to be that that’s all Hoffman was using them for, too. That the Master’s hocus-pocus was just as id-driven as the “animal” he wanted to redeem, only less honest.

That’s all quite interesting (or at least I think so), but I’m not convinced it makes the film great. There Will Be Blood had the advantage of serving as a critique of capitalism and a morality tale about America. It looked like The Master was going to be similarly ambitious, taking on one of the world’s most prominent religious-ish movements, maybe even religion in general. And it sort of does, by showing how such movements show more about their leaders’ hang-ups than life-altering Answers. But as a story, it feels small, a story of two people rather than a movement or a nation. It’s beautiful and perfectly acted, with an incredible score and many, many wonderful moments. I’m still not convinced it’s great.

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