Master, The


A Cult of Personality: The Master

Main Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

How is it that a simple movie has the power to make me feel stupid?  Has this ever happened to you?  You sit through the entire thing, going along for the ride, and at the end you can’t quite figure out what you’re supposed to take away from the whole thing.  Ladies and gentlemen, this week’s I’m Stupid movie is The Master.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell.  Freddie is coming home from World War II and isn’t adjusting well.  Actually, he probably wasn’t particularly well adjusted when he left.  He’s a seriously weird dude with substance abuse problems and issues with inappropriate sexual behavior.  He happens to make the acquaintance of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is the founder and leader of The Cause, a cult-like organization devoted to Dodd’s meandering philosophies about past lives.  Dodd (also known as The Master) is for some reason taken with Freddie and tries his absolute hardest to bring him into the fold.  His pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is not convinced that Freddie is worthy.  Either are we, and we know that The Cause is a pile of bull.

The Master is the story of Lancaster and Freddie and The Cause.  It painstakingly weaves

Philip Seymour Hoffman by Georges Biard

Philip Seymour Hoffman

through the months after the main characters meet, showing the steps Freddie takes to become a fully indoctrinated member of The Cause, several long sessions between Freddie

and Lancaster revealing Freddie’s past indiscretions and personality flaws (of which there are many) and Freddie’s many failures as a right hand man.  To be honest, it’s pretty fascinating.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson digs amazing performances from Hoffman and Phoenix – they’re intense and raw and compelling.  Amy Adams is also wonderful as Peggy, the devoted

Joaquin Phoenix by Tony Shek

Joaquin Phoenix

and completely brainwashed but very, very controlling wife who enjoys the power being attached to The Master brings.  They are also the sum total of what the movie has to offer.

If you’re bewildered as to how all the main performances in a movie can earn Oscar nominations but the movie itself is left out, this is a perfect example.  Phoenix is amazing as the weird and damaged Freddie Quell.  To be honest, I’m pretty convinced that Phoenix is either the best actor of all time or the weirdest dude of all time – he may be both.  Freddie is creepy and broken and pathetic and violent.  He would

Amy Adams by Mingle Media TV

Amy Adams

be a perfect member of The Cause cult if only

he were just more malleable.  Phoenix gives him tics and quirks and a really tricky hyperactive slump that are, all together, completely off-putting.  It’s entirely understandable why people dislike this man, and entirely understandable why The Master sees him as a great challenge.  Hoffman plays The Master like the role was written for him.  He’s charming and smarmy and puffed with the sort of self indulgent power that only comes from trickery and lies.  He has also come to believe enough of his own nonsense that he can’t help but attempt to validate it all through a lost, damaged soul like Freddie.  Their interaction is what is fascinating.  Their scenes together are gripping and compelling.

Paul Thomas Anderson by Jurgen Fauth

Paul Thomas Anderson

But…they don’t go anywhere.  The movie grinds over the same territory over and over without moving forward.  All the scenes between Freddie and The Master are only as good as what comes from them.  And what comes from them is nothing.  This is when I find myself wondering what I’ve missed – is there some meaning here that is over my head?  I’ve pondered the question and finally come to the conclusion that the answer is no.  I’m not stupid and I didn’t miss some grand revelation.  The movie just stalls out, not knowing where to go with its characters or situation.  It’s sad, really, because the performances are so terrific.  I have to give Anderson credit for writing those scenes and pulling such tense drama from his actors.  But the movie as a whole eventually falls in on itself as it slowly goes nowhere, leaving all the intensity behind and fizzling away to a non-ending.  I’m giving the movie 3 stars out of 5 because the performances of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams are undeniably fabulous.  But I don’t really recommend that you see it unless you’re prepared to just enjoy the scenes as they stand alone and don’t expect them to result in a satisfying whole.

photos by Georges Biard, Tony Shek, Mingle MediaTV, Jurgen Fauth

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