Move Review: The Master
In the earliest days, during the creation of what would eventually became known as modern Scientology, legend has it founder L. Ron Hubbard summoned his followers off to a retreat. There, he reportedly delivered a series of lectures which lasted a mind-boggling 70 hours.
The science-fiction writer-turned-guru intentionally sheltered his growing band of worshipers. By design, they were isolated from reality. Completely removed from outside bearings, they were left alone to their own vulnerabilities and striped of abilities to reason and question what they were hearing as Hubbard preached and pontificated to the point where his voice finally gave out. When the guru could speak no more, the revival was declared done and his flock of followers were set free, indoctrinated with gibberish.
One must wonder — kind of desperate individual would willingly expose themselves to such delusions? Who would voluntarily sit through such a carnival of madness? Perhaps it’s the same curiosity seeker (myself included) who managed to sit through the entirety of a recent film called The Master. Anyone who endured this cinematic ordeal now at least has some idea of what those early followers must have experienced.
Indeed, The Master is an abomination.
One of the worst major motion pictures of the year, this is a thoroughly painful cinematic experience with absolutely no entertainment, nor educational value. Worse, it’s a bore.
How could Paul Thomas Anderson, the same acclaimed director who gave us the utterly brilliant Magnolia and the almost as good There Will Be Blood have created such a meandering misadventure that morphs into such a dreadfully dull and depressing film from start to finish?
Based loosely on the Scientology movement’s earliest days and the wacko charlatan (Hubbard) who lured thousands of devotees into what the movie terms as “The Cause,” the artistic canvass seemed perfectly ripe for what should have been an intriguing and inquisitive examination of one of the most interesting, yet least understood, subjects of our time. Indeed, religion often makes for an interesting movie subject, particularly as a topic of intense examination. No matter what one thinks of Scientology and those who chose to follow it, the very true story of how a struggling novelist was able to remake himself and create a bold new 20th Century religion and worldwide movement that came to attract some of society’s most famous people merits a serious treatment.
And so it was. One of the our finest directors took the challenge upon himself and made what came to be The Master. Three of Hollywood’s best actors were hand-picked for lead roles — including Joachim Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. So rich was the subject matter that all three successfully deliver gritty performances, which earned an Oscar nomination. Production even went to the extreme of using a rare film type (65 mm), so as to give the movie the authentic retro look of post-World War II America. Alas, all the pieces seemed to be perfectly in place for a masterful Master.
The trouble begins with the confusing script and pointless dialogue throughout. How does a screenwriter and director manage to team up and fail to illicit even one single emotional response from its audience? No laughter. No tears. No sadness. No joy. No reaction whatsoever, other than increasing volumes of grumbling the longer the film went. Scene by scene, the creeping sense of boredom finally morphed into outrage. It’s hard to believe a film about controversial subject matter largely based on fact, led by one of Hollywood’s top directors and three of the best actors working today could bungle this film so badly. Unfortunately, it’s not so bad as to be unintentionally comical. That would have been a treat. Instead, it’s just plain boring.
Another problem is — there’s not a single character in this film worth caring about. Joachim Phoenix plays a mentally-disturbed loser drifting aimlessly from job to job after the war. Completely unsympathetic, he eventually latches on to “The Cause” by accident and is taken under the wing of the movement’s founder and guru philosopher, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Never mind that Phoenix is intellectually incapable of becoming a true believer. He’s far too selfish to care about anything other than his next boozing session or sexual conquest. But he does manage to stay with “The Cause” for quite some time, beholden for sustenance to Hoffman and his wife, played by Amy Adams. To their credit, all three actors succeed brilliantly in being repulsive figures. Trouble is, even though they’re sinister in different ways, they really aren’t very interesting.
The opening scene, a nonsensical flashback of sexual vulgarity sets an unforeseen pace, which last for two-plus hours. Be warned, this is an incessantly repugnant film, which seems to take great joy in employing sexual acts and ceaseless profanity merely for shock value. For instance, what other reason exists for Amy Adams to spend two full minutes jacking off Phillip Seymour Hoffman into a bathroom sink? The scene is pointless and profane. If that’s your idea of “entertainment” — and it’s fine if you enjoy that sort of thing — there are certainly more suitable films out there with better-looking actors if you want to get your rocks off.
Yet what’s truly odd is that although the sex scene is both shocking and puzzling, by the time it appears about two-thirds way through the film, no one in the audience seemed to care. By that time, I think most who were watching were already tired of rolling their eyes. I bring up this graphic sexual scene because it pretty much sums up the tone that’s reflected throughout this hopelessly pointless movie.
To be clear, breeches of good taste and expectancy can be forgiven if more meaningful points are made and delivered on film. Unfortunately, this brings up the film’s worst failure — which lies in its unwillingness to examine the subject matter which it’s purportedly about. Specifically, what is it that attracts seemingly decent people to follow this cult? What are the responsibilities of the movement’s members (they’re shown standing around doing nothing the entire movie)? What’s the basic philosophy of “The Cause?” How is the movement funded? Not only are answers never given, the questions aren’t even asked.
That a film director with the pedigree of Mr. Anderson would abdicate this unique opportunity to look more closely at this strange religion and try to determine the reasons for its appeal is baffling. It’s also a reason to avoid attending the movie at all, given there’s no insight nor entertainment value.
Here’s my gut reaction: I would have walked out of this movie midway through had I not already invested considerable time in trying so desperately to care. Since I’d made an earnest attempt to connect to what I was watching, I hoped for some Hail Mary wrap up at the end that somehow tied all the dangling loose ends together. Desperate to grasp some sliver of understanding about a subject of which I know little, I stayed — and watched and waited. Like waiting for a bus that never came, I was left at the stop standing out in the rain.
As the final credits rolled, I departed the theater more angry and confused than when I had entered. Most of the two dozen other film goers at my afternoon showing seemed to agree, as all I heard was grumbling as the exit doors were plowed open and we were released from Anderson’s pointless labyrinth of lunacy.
This is a horrible film.
RATING: ONE HALF STAR OUT OF FIVE STARS