“THE MASTER” IS about two and a half hours long. It’s the longest two and a half hours you’re likely to spend in a long time. And this despite outstanding performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous master, Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as a violent wandering seaman Freddie Quell.
The story is about Freddie’s ambivalent relationship with Lancaster, a hypnotic cult leader. Freddie is both obsessively protective (which essentially means beating up non-believers) and a non-believer himself. The movie looks at the need people have to believe in something larger than themselves; the need to transcend themselves. But Freddie is essentially a drunk – for him such transcendence lies only at the bottom of a bottle (or in the fantasy of love which never rises above his hurried couplings). But it’s this human need for belief that opens the door so easily for charlatans like Lancaster. Director Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be suggesting that there is an essential gullibility at the heart of us all; a gullibility that allow us to believe the far flung nonsense that Dodd is pedaling (or for that matter that water can turn into wine, that bread is the body of the Christ etc).
There is a nice balance between the commanding self-confidence of Hoffman/Dodd – all stillness and mannered poise- and the twitching unbalanced Phoenix/Freddie. What both men have in common is a deep violent refusal to be contradicted. With Freddie this violence is physical and on the surface. With Dodd, the violence is repressed and only erupts from time to time.
So, all this should add up to a movie that’s as good as the accolades that have greeted it. But there are two words I’d use to describe it: “Weird” and “boring”.
Anderson’s distinct style mixes in realism and fantasy (there’s one scene in which Dodd is speaking at a gathering of believers…. His speech turns into song and the female on-lookers are transformed into nakedness.) He juxtaposes scenes in such a way as to break up the narrative thread and offer us more of a series of dramatized vignettes linked together thematically but with scant sense of continuity.
Such a pity. “The Master” has the potential to offer interesting commentary if only the self-consciousness of the directing hadn’t gotten in the way.