The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, looks like Hollywood but is trying very hard to be something else. What that thing is exactly, is beyond me, but my guess is that Anderson is trying for European Art House. The film does the long takes, the simmering close ups, the wide-screen landscapes and the beautifully art directed interiors straight from Douglas Sirk. The flat graphic shots from above that reduce a navy ship to a cubist canvas and a stairwell to a Japanese print are stunning. But those Mad Men period costumes, despite their crisp loveliness, are just another case of style over content. Even in those clothes, I am not convinced by much of what comes out of any of the actors’ mouths. Anderson wrote the script and I wonder if perhaps he should have worked with a writer. The dialogue is flat and unmemorable.
Poster for Anderson's The Master
One of the problems with films set in the 1950s is that since George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) it is now de rigueur for directors to make their actors smoke. And let’s face it, American actors these days don't know how to do it. They can wear all the fifties tailoring they want, but when it comes to sucking on a cigarette they’re rubbish. They are so self-consciously saying, “See, look at me I can play a character who is so carefree they actually smoke!” And it doesn’t wash. I can tell they’re wondering how many puffs they are allowed before their life insurance premium shoot up.
The opening scenes of The Master – full of US Navy men jostling on the beach all lithe torsos and innocence – are treated with nostalgic saturated Kodachrome colours that are seductive indeed. I was half expecting Burt Lancaster to stroll onto the set in his swimming trunks. And by fifteen minutes in I was wishing someone with half his screen-melting talent would. Joaquin Pheonix, who plays Freddie Quell, the confused, alcoholic, ex-serviceman, is immediately drawn to the cult that we never really get close to. He is good enough to start with – edgy and charismatic – but doesn’t graduate to being anything more than an annoying bag of mannerisms by the end. I haven’t a clue what makes his character tick. And even more puzzling is why any of the characters in the film would want him in their midst. And yet they keep inviting him back to their cult-like bosom for more of his predictably bad behaviour.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman appears on screen in the character of Lancaster Dodd, I was finally able to relax. I was at last in the hands of a master – the Master of the title in fact. He is an actor who is more than a series of overblown deliveries – and he looks damn good with a fag in his hand. His voice, his eyes, his way of being, are almost worth the admission price. But not quite. A film has to be more than a couple of good performances. If Hoffman’s presence in the film is its heart, then Amy Adams is its steely backbone. She delivers a chilling performance as Sue Dodd, the hard-as-nails wife of the Master. I could have had more of her. Any actor who can give her character’s husband a hand job over the sink and make it look like she’s flossing his teeth gets my vote.
The oddest thing about The Master, and why it ultimately fails for me, is its total and utter lack of tension or drama. I had no idea why Lancaster Dodd cared about Freddie. If his motives for brining Freddie into the centre of his cultish family are part of a redemptive project it wasn’t played nearly creepily or insinuatingly enough. If Dodd took him in out of some kind of homoerotic desire, that didn’t come through. Perhaps he just wanted a poster boy for his cult, but there was no hint of that either. What I suspect is that Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to subtly point to all of these motivations and in doing so gives us half-baked reasons which add up to not much more than an over-long Hollywood film with good costumes, some beautiful shots and no story.
I wanted to get up close to the mind of someone with enough madness and ego to found a cult but Anderson seems squeamish about trying to get inside Dodd’s brain. Why? Surely this is the point of the film. I can understand why a drifter would be attracted to a cult with its reassuring rules and hierarchies, but Freddie seems totally uninterested in the workings of Dodd’s mind and the cult he has created around himself. He spends most of the film beating people up who disagree with the Master and then weaseling his way back into the group while having flashbacks to a young girl he left to join the navy. That is the entire plot and structure of the film.
I am embarrassed to admit that Johnny Greenwood’s score was one of the best things about the movie. It kept my interest up when my concentration flagged. I was expecting more than couture and music and some great camera work to take home with me. I was expecting an intelligent and entertaining piece of film-making which might possibly get me thinking about life and human fragility and desire and faith. If you are expecting something along these lines, don’t bother with The Master. It is a bloated piece of self-consciously art house cinema that, like the cult it is supposed to be portraying, is empty and perhaps even a bit ridiculous to its core.