Great acting cannot save Paul Thomas Anderson's ponderous new Scientology movie, The Master
Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master”: Dedicated, if sometimes indecipherable
Having come late to the hit American series Homeland, the drama about a possible terrorist infiltration into the very heart of a US administration, which has just started its second outing on Channel 4, I found myself, in a recent reflective period, attempting to analyse how and why each episode was so compelling. How was such a suspenseful and intelligent narrative maintained over so many hours? Was it the generally excellent acting or simply the superb writing? How did they manage to produce such stuff over there when, as my neighbour on these pages Nick Cohen has pointed out, British TV has mostly become so useless at it? Whatever the answers, the overall effect on me has been of exhilaration at something done so well, and with such respect for the viewers.
That reflective period occurred, in fact, during a screening of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film about a drifting war veteran who becomes involved with a cult called The Cause. In the darkness and comfort of the packed auditorium my mind had obviously wandered on to smaller and better things. As one protracted, portentous scene followed another, as my eyes tracked what passed before them with decreasing engagement, it occurred to me that the same question could be asked of the current movie industry. US television is undoubtedly beating Hollywood at its own game.
Oh, for a good story well told. Too many supposedly serious films — and The Master comes to us wreathed in garlands — fetishise the visual at the expense of clarity and narrative. To give an example: establishing that our drifter and World War II veteran Freddie (played by a repellently emaciated Joaquin Phoenix) is indeed a dissolute drunk takes what seems like a full half-hour of screen time. We see him reeling, larking about on the beach, having sex, getting a job as a photographer for a department store, losing it, and getting drunk again. This is all beautifully filmed, and the postwar period — from clothes to social manners — is immaculately created and conveyed. But Old Hollywood would have set this up and moved on within five minutes. Our current crop of young auteurs, of which Anderson — ever since he came on the scene with his porn epic Boogie Nights — is one of the most revered, mistake length for weight, and ponderousness for subtlety. No TV writer would be allowed to get away with it. Such self-indulgence puts a severe strain on our patience, and it is only the promise of what, on paper, seems like a good story which keeps us watching.
The Master has caused a few squibs of controversy for apparently being partly based on the beginnings of Scientology. The period is the same, and some have noted that there is a resemblance between Lancaster Dodd as portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and L. Ron Hubbard. The Cause’s practice of attempting to rid converts of their past emotionally obstructive traumas is also at the basis of Scientology. This, then, is potentially good material. But at every juncture, it is allowed to wither. Freddie is taken into the fold by Dodd, who seems to have a special liking for him (a fondness which is confirmed at the end when Dodd cryptically sings “Slow Boat to China” to him) but why this should be so is never explained. When it is pointed out to Dodd by an admirer that his new book appears directly to contradict some of his original teachings and methods, he explodes in a rage at being questioned, but again, this incident goes precisely nowhere. In another scene Dodd’s own son declares his father a fraud who “makes it up as he goes along” — quite a game-changer, you’d think. But no: the film ambles on its way and nothing happens.
But, most importantly, there is virtually no development in Freddie’s character or his relationship with Dodd. Freddie starts the film a seedy, virtually subnormal drunk and ends it a seedy, virtually subnormal drunk. Indeed, despite acting as an occasionally violent henchman for the cult, he is ultimately — and lamely — rejected as being beyond help. His “journey” leads us, the audience, right up a cul-de-sac. Why then should we invest any interest in this individual who exhibits no hidden treasure, no qualities — great or twisted — to unearth?
Some filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott, have customarily been excused for their sometimes weak storytelling because of the beauty of their visuals. But the luxurious photography of The Master doesn’t compensate in the same way, for the impression gradually forms that Anderson regards intelligent, comprehensible storytelling as beneath him. You start to resent the implicit suggestion that it is vulgar to expect the story to have a point.
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both with their slightly off-kilter, indie air, are among the most admired of today’s screen actors. They give their all here, displaying that type of detailed dedication which also acts as an advertisement for material they obviously consider “important”. Phoenix, best known perhaps in a stock-ier incarnation as the malignant Emperor to Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, must have lost a ton of weight for the part, and scuttles, hands on hips, across the screen, drawling his lines, sometimes indecipherably, from the corner of his mouth. Seymour Hoffman, too, holds the screen with his voice.
All of this is impressive, in a way. But I kept thinking what a good six-part series this story would have made, if it had been given over to the writers of Homeland. I would certainly have watched it on TV. As I would, too, a good documentary on L. Ron Hubbard. In that case, truth would have proved not just stranger than fiction, but far more vivid and compelling in the telling. Yes, The Master has some great acting. But despite the air of seriousness which pervades the whole thing, the only question you’re left pondering is — so what?