The Master ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Master ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The new movie, The Master, is said to be loosely based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, writer and controversial founder of the Church of Scientology. It was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose credits include There Will be Blood and the bizarre Boogie Nights, about the lives of a group of people working in the pornography industry in California. While The Master is intelligent, beautifully made and interesting in its way, I found it difficult to like.

The main character in the movie is a young man (or not so young—his face is deeply lined) named Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix). He fought during World War II and, since the war ended, is directionless. He is, and apparently always has been, an unrepentant drunk. He is a professional photographer of sorts but doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere he goes. He has no friends, home or family to speak of. He seems emotionally immature, dangerously self-destructive, not very bright, and prone to sudden violence. We learn few facts about his earlier life, other than his father died a drunk, his mother is in a mental institution, and he had a sixteen-year-old girlfriend when he was in the navy to whom he promised to return and never did, finding out, years later, that she married somebody else.

By stowing away on a yacht belonging to a man named Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Freddie becomes part of Dodd’s strange world. (Dodd is the character based on L. Ron Hubbard.) Dodd is a writer, philosopher, doctor, mystic, and—some would say—crackpot. He is a father figure of sorts and, for some reason, likes Freddie; he sees something in him that apparently isn’t visible to others.

Dodd has a small but devoted band of followers and adherents, including a much younger pregnant wife (Amy Adams), two grown children and a son-in-law. His followers seem to have nothing better to do than to go wherever he goes, even if it’s at sea on a yacht. He develops a philosophy—a kind of religion—that’s based on the idea of placing subjects in a near-hypnotic state and allowing them to experience past lives. Freddie seems to fit in with this group of people, maybe for the first time in his life. He becomes a devoted disciple of Lancaster Dodd and, in a way, a part of Dodd’s family.

The relationship between Freddie Quell and the older and father-like Lancaster Dodd is the emotional core of the movie, but it—and the movie itself—seems emotionally sterile. Freddie Quell is so unappealing and unlikeable that we are not able to see why Lancaster Dodd likes him and takes him under his wing. He mumbles a lot of his dialogue, or else speaks with a clenched jaw, so we aren’t able to understand a lot of what he says. Did I forget to mention that he’s annoying most of the time he’s onscreen?

In the end, nothing really seems resolved; the story just seems to stop rather than to end. It’s a movie that, I think, seems better in retrospect, but it is, after all, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. For that reason alone, it is probably worth experiencing for the serious moviegoer interested in cinematic art—rather than in sophomoric laughs, car chases, explosions and titillating sex scenes that Hollywood offers up in abundance these days.

Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp

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