Review: The Master

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The MasterThe Pitch: The Church of Scientology has not yet published a comprehensive official biography of [Lafayette Ron] Hubbard.” – From the Wikipedia entry for L. Ron Hubbard.

The Review: “After establishing a career as a writer, becoming best known for his science fiction and fantasy stories, he developed a self-help system called Dianetics which was first published in May 1950.”

If you look up the definition of a cult, it refers to the repetition of religious practice and the sense of care owed to the gods or shrine. In terms of those elements of the definition, the works of Paul Thomas Anderson could well be seen to fit that description, with a new work from PTA not only required viewing for his followers, but also following increasing trends and patterns. The course of his career has seen a number of unconventional character studies, ranging from the sprawling ensemble of Magnolia to the tightly wound intensity of There Will Be Blood, but always one pair of characters stands out from the others in terms of that study, to the point where TWBB was practically a two hander. So it will come as little surprise that The Master again is a study in character, and takes that trend further forward to the point where the character study is the plot, or at least what could best be regarded as one.

“The Church of Scientology describes Hubbard in hagiographic terms, and he portrayed himself as a pioneering explorer, world traveler (sic), and nuclear physicist with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including photography, art, poetry, and philosophy.”

So The Master is what’s become known as Anderson’s Scientology film, but anyone expecting a rigorous analysis or critique of the most infamous cult religion of the 20th century should turn back now. The Master is layered with such detail or comments from the life of Scientology’s founding father, L. Ron Hubbard, but instead built largely into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). What Anderson is looking to understand is the persuasive power of leadership, and Dodd’s ability or otherwise to exert that power on his followers; in the case of the film, one Freddie Quell (Joaquim Phoenix). Where TWBB saw the relationship dynamic between Paul Dano’s immovable object and Daniel Day Lewis’s irresistible force, here Dodd and Quell are both more dynamic, occasionally two forces directed explosively together but as often two objects thrown apart.

“He served briefly in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and was an officer in the United States Navy during World War II, briefly commanding two ships, the USS YP-422 and USS PC-815. He was removed both times when his superiors found him incapable of command.”

Dodd doesn’t actually appear on screen in the first half hour, the film preoccupied with Quell’s initial journey into the company of The Cause (the film’s on-screen name for its own cult). Anderson is keen to explore the how as well as the why, but the what forms components of story rather than a structured framework. What has divided audiences is that lack of structure, so it’s left to the performances to draw you in. Phoenix especially is mesmerising, never likeable or especially sympathetic but showing enough volatility to keep him interesting. Hoffman’s performance might be more understated, but carries credibility in terms of his ability to both motivate and occasionally infuriate. (It’s also worth noting that both Dodd and Quell seem to have been influenced by Hubbard’s real life back story, further playing up the duality of their relationship.) Although there’s a wide supporting cast, few others outside these two make any kind of impact.

“He has been quoted as telling a science fiction convention in 1948: ‘Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.'”

If you wanted to guarantee success in film, you’d probably be out making a series of films about teenage vampires battling alien wizards from the future, as the more unlikely it is, the more commercial it will be. But quality can also bring success, and The Master has quality running through every one of its production values, especially in Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s dangerous, provocative music. The overall effect creates a mood that will totally consume many viewers but may further alienate those looking for something definitive to latch on to. But for those willing to give themselves totally over to Anderson’s vision, there’s much to dissect and plenty to take, even if Anderson does give himself over to an occasional indulgence (and yes, I’m looking at you, naked party scene).

“At the start of March 1966, Hubbard created the Guardian’s Office (GO), a new agency within the Church of Scientology that was headed by his wife Mary Sue.”

Appearances can be deceptive, and just as there’s more going on with most cults than you’d see on the surface, there’s more to The Master than the central relationship. Key to the new dynamic here is Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who flits around on the periphery but seemingly has influence over Lancaster at key moments. Phoenix’s performance may be the most showy but Adams to elevate The Master that level further, performing that classic trick of women’s roles of doing a lot when not much is given (or, at least, initially appears to be). It’s these character moments that will likely dictate your level of appreciation for The Master; if the tangential exploration of cults in general and Scientology specifically, welded to the stunning character work and wrapped in some of the finest cinematic trappings available, is enough then you, like me, could probably watch this on a loop. If, however, the lack of narrative momentum and sympathetic characters are likely to bother you, then The Master is unlikely to recruit you to the cult of Anderson.

“He was a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov’s fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers.”

Sequel, anyone?

Why see it at the cinema: It’s impressively filmed and performed, looks and sounds incredible even in the digital version (although I do hope to revisit it in 70mm early next year), and is absolutely one of those films you need an opinion on if you have a love of film for that debate in the bar afterwards.

The Score: 10/10

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