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The Master

The Master

What She said:

She

Ever wonder what it’s like to hang out with a bunch of lunatics for two hours?  Well then, The Master is your answer.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson decides to avoid the weight of an overly complex plot, and instead shows the viewer what happens when a bunch of nutballs come together to form a cult around a narcissistic leader.  While, overall, I wasn’t overly impressed with the film, The Master was a decent enough character study.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much beyond that.

The movie follows the reckless Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a former serviceman who now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  To silence his demons his indulges in a mixture of alcohol, drugs, and sex.  Watching Freddie create his own drug/alcohol cocktail out of dangerous household chemicals is somewhat disturbing, and it’s amazing that he survives the entire film.  He’s constantly on the run, with no family to turn to and the torment of his psychosis.  Eventually, Freddie sneaks on to the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a cult/religion named The Cause.  Dodd spouts off a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo to his followers, claiming that it’s all based on fact.  To the sane, you can easily see through his thin logic and the discrepancies of his research, but Dodd has a growing following.  Dodd sees a challenge in Freddie, and attempts to break him of his habits and make him a believer of The Cause.  Other members also try to assist in Dodd’s efforts.  But Dodd has met his ultimate match in Freddie; his deep seeded psychological issues, while destructive, do not render him an easy convert.  Surprisingly, Freddie, who is just looking for a way out and a free place to stay, hangs with The Cause, despite not buying in on the religion, and his mannerisms cause discord within the group.

The Master

Phoenix and Hoffman are the strengths of this movie.  Their acting is superb, even if there isn’t much of a story for them to latch on to.  They simply spend two hours playing crazy and crazier.  But boy are they believable.  I think they each probably possess some of the actual qualities of their characters, which makes it possible for them to be so convincing in their roles.  Amy Adams received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Dodd’s wife, although I didn’t think she was anything special here.

Now on to my major complaint; the story.  There isn’t that much that really happens and what does seems pretty inconsequential.  Perhaps it’s a fairly accurate representation of everyday life, but I would have liked more drama or to have felt like there was more at stake.  Another downside of this movie is that it’s very jarring.  I guess that’s an attempt to make the characters seem super real, but there’s some sexual stuff in this movie that is a bit much to handle.  Freddie is a real disturbed dude.  That said, it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly not for everyone.  On more than one occasion I found myself putting my hands over my face and saying, “Wow, this guy is sick.” 

I cannot say I hated the movie, but I certainly didn’t love it.  It was very slow and random at times.  It actually made me feel a little crazy, but in that sense I guess it was experiential.

Thumbs a quarter of the way up.

The Master

What he said:

He

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is one messed up dude. He isn’t just a raging alcoholic, no-no that would be simple compared to Freddie’s type of addiction. You see, Freddie likes to make his own concoctions. I’m not talking about rum and coke, vodka and cranberry, or a gin and tonic. No, Freddie likes using things such as rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, or just about any other toxic substance he can get his hands on.

That’s not all either. Freddie also seems to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or other emotional issues as a result of his time in the military. He has not adjusted to civilian life at all. He was in World War II and has never recuperated.
He’s a complete pervert as well. Like his drinking problem, he doesn’t simply think about the ladies. He sees things that aren’t there. He does things in public that are frowned upon. He dates underage girls. There is very little that is off limits to this demented individual.

The Master

You could actually make the case though that Freddie had problems long before he entered the war though. When you hear a little more about his past, the guy’s just not all there and never really appears to have been. He’s a very deranged man. His time in the military seems to have made it worse, but Freddie never really seems like he was ever a normal or even functional person.

Freddie’s personality quirks make it hard for him to find work. He bounces around from job-to-job, because of his inability to interact with people, the fact that he’s always drunk, and his violent behavior. It would be fair to call him something of a drifter. One day he comes across – more like stumbles – a man that who goes by “The Master “(Philip Seymour Hoffman). The Master (yes people actually call him that) is the leader of religious/philosophical group that refers to their belief system as “The Cause”.  One might even say they’re a cult.

The Master takes a liking to Freddie. Throughout the movie you can tell that he views helping Freddie as something of a personal challenge. He has to help the guy. His ego won’t let him to do anything but help Freddie. He even insists on helping Freddie when his family expresses concerns about Freddie’s violent outbursts as well as his dedication to The Cause.

The Master also seems to really enjoy drinking Freddie’s concoctions as well.  The two often have long conversations about Freddie’s past while drinking something made of paint thinner or something else that you have to be completely insane to put in your body.  Like Freddie, he seems to have developed a taste for chemical substances in his drink.

The dynamic between the two of them goes back-and-forth from drinking buddies to more of a patient/doctor relationship. I’m no expect, but making mixed drinks with paint thinner with your “doctor” might not be the best way to go about getting treatment.

Now if this all sounds pretty crazy, that’s because it is. If it sounds like there isn’t a whole lot going on, it’s because that is also true. That’s pretty much this movie in a nutshell.  It’s a character study with almost no storyline at all. It is literally about a bunch of crazy people just kind of going about their daily life. The Master character goes from town-to-town mooching off followers and living like a king. He always has a place to stay, plenty of food and booze, and he doesn’t seem to pay for any of it. And Freddie just follows him around. That’s it.

The Master

That being said, I did find these people strangely fascinating. Phoenix’s portrayal of Freddie was brilliant. He is completely unlikeable and a pretty disgusting person, but it was like getting a VIP pass and front row seats into the mind of a madman, and I couldn’t turn away from it. The guy is barely capable of conversation, but he’s an interesting study of the effects of domestic issues, alcoholism, and the effects of war on the human psyche. I was equally interested in Hoffman’s portray of a cult leader. It was frustrating and mind-blowing to watch so many people be drawn to this guy. He attempts to use science to explain his faith. I have no problem with that at all. I’m actually a fan of that. I’m not religious, but not an atheist either. I don’t think science and faith have to be enemies and would like to see more honest, respectful, and factual conversations between the two. But if you are going to go this route, you can’t be making things up, and that’s exactly what The Master does. This guy can sling bullshit with the best of them. If you listen to what he says, you know it has no basis in anything factual, but he boasts how scientific his beliefs are. He says things like “This is science, not mysticism.” Hoffman was equally brilliant in his portrayal as this charismatic, egotistical, and manipulative leader. I thought Amy Adams was also good as his wife Peggy. The character was not particularly loud or aggressive, but she had this quiet confidence about her. She was not a yeller, but you also don’t really want to mess with her. She is steadfast in her beliefs and isn’t afraid to make that known, but again she does it in a very composed way. I thought Ambyr Childers was also solid as The Masters zombie-like daughter Elizabeth. This chick was creepy as hell. She was fiercely loyal to the cause. 

But again I have to come back to the fact that nothing really happens in this movie. There is a lot of eating, drinking, mingling, and some off-the-wall therapy techniques thrown in between the socializing. The movie could have really benefitted from a better plot. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be obsessed with the darker side of human nature. He doesn’t just tell stories about flawed people, he tells stories about people who are effed up with a capitol F. The problem with that is that he focuses so much on that, he pretty much ignores the story. Luckily for him there are some really strong performances in the movie. I can totally see why the actors were nominated, but the movie itself nor the director were not.

Now comes the real interesting part. When the storyline of the movie was released there were rumors this movie was about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson and the studio quickly denied this. Everybody knows they were full of shit though because Scientology and friend of Anderson, Tom Cruise, was given a private screening before the movie hit theaters. Anderson has also confirmed since the movie’s release that the movie is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, in part at least. He also says that in addition to that, it’s a mixture of stories told to him by actor Jason Robards – who was a WWII vet and an alcoholic – leftover scenes from one of his other movies, and the life story of author John Steinbeck (another WWII vet). It makes me wonder if he made up the other stuff to alleviate some pressure from the Scientology community. Or if it truly is a combination of things , who was Freddie? Did Jason Robards or John Steinbeck like mixing a little paint thinner in their drinks, or was that one of their war buddies? Either way you find yourself wondering just how much of this crazy stuff is true. It’s a fictional movie, but supposedly based on several real people.

Rating: Thumbs half up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on March 5, 2013.

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