The Master is a trick sadly missed

Cert 15 | ***

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-inspired The Master looks set to be a classic. The cinematography is sumptuous, the score is beautiful, and, of course, much Serious Acting takes place. However, there is an indecisiveness at the heart of The Master.

It is 1950 and the 2nd world war has left former seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) psychologically disturbed, and with a taste for drink. He spends his time making absurdly strong moonshine from industrial liquids. One day, after falling asleep drunk, he wakes up on the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd invites Quell to sail with him on his voyage in the company of various other people who are dedicated to The Cause, the quasi-religious organization that Dodd leads. Quell takes up the offer and the two begin a strange, almost father/son relationship.

While the performances are excellent, there is no real development in either main character and no resolution in their relationship, and to attribute this vagueness to Anderson’s poetic vision seems overly generous. There is not much of a sense of how Dodd works his theories on those who surround him. As a character he is eccentric, intriguing, but not especially commanding or charismatic. There is no real sense of the power he wields. “Master” connotes dominion and guidance, but his command never seems total and his followers do not appear brainwashed. In a way, it is disappointing for something as darkly secretive as Scientology to be portrayed as banal. There is an assumption that any treatment of religious cults – especially one favoured by the rich and powerful like Scientology – will be satirical in some way. Many will go and see The Master expecting (and desiring) an exploration of cult and the dangerous power that charismatic individuals can have over vulnerable individuals. Instead, this is a film about a single relationship.

Dodd and Quell are two one-offs. There is no wider moral to be gleaned from their relationship because the personality and circumstance of each man is too unique. Both are vulnerable in their own way. Yes, Quell is to some extent dependent on the Master, but it becomes clear that the Master is dependent on Quell, too. Only someone as vulnerable and unstable as Quell can provide the kind of loyalty that Dodd needs – a loyalty that is truly unwavering. This is quite interesting, but both characters come across as remote. Phoenix emotes but somehow remains enigmatic from start to finish. In their final showdown, it is not clear what either wants from the relationship, so it is impossible to gauge what is at stake.

In basing his story on Scientology but refusing to engage with it morally or politically, Anderson is angling for a more personal story. However, this story only ever seems partially imagined. There Will Be Blood may have confirmed Paul Thomas Anderson himself is a master but it is important to remember that he is not infallible.