There’s an easy, and often fair, criticism to be made of some films – that they lack a plot. We watch films because at a fundamental level people like stories. We may have differing tastes in what types of stories we like, but for as long as humans have been able to communicate we’ve been telling each other stories. So when a film lacks a story, we criticise it – we feel short-changed. We pay good money to get a good story – if we don’t get, we feel a little hoodwinked.
Just occasionally, though, a film comes along which is an exception to that rule. So it is with The Master. It’s the latest film to be directed by Paul Thomas Anderson – in the past he’s given us memorable films like There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. There’s been a fair bit of publicity around this film for basing itself on the life of L Ron Hubbard, the man who founded the cult of Scientology. Certainly there’s much that suggests that in the film. As I said, it’s not so much a story as two portraits hanging side by side. One is a portrait of the founder of the Scientology-like cult (Lancaster Dodd, played with characteristic conviction and power by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The other is of Freddie (the always intense and compelling Joaquin Phoenix), a returning World War Two serviceman, scarred mentally by what he’s seen who falls into the cult leader’s inner-circle, and becomes Dodd’s special project. So the relationship plays out – we see manipulation, the secret influence and power of Lancaster’s wife (the brilliant Amy Adams), the behind the scenes hedonism, mental disintegration and reconstruction. The longer we sit looking at the portraits, the more we see – and the deeper we go, the more we suspect our initial judgements about the people may be unfounded.
The film has many of the individual parts which make up the director’s work – weighty, brilliant performances; entrancing cinematography; a jarring, startling, original and unforgettable original musical score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s a less immediately likeable film than There Will Be Blood; there was with that film a sense of explosions and exposure coming, the two main protagonists sparring and teasing until one was forced to extinguish the other. Here we’re invited to sit and think, to look deeply. The film isn’t really about religion or cult-life; it’s about power, co-dependancy and manipulation – by the end, we’re unsure as to who has really manipulated who. There are moments and scenes which may be reality – or may be the hallucination of one character. Which is it? We’re not led to an answer – instead we’re asked to reflect, to think.
It’s a hard film to love, but one to be admired and deeply respected. It is memorable – the characters live with you for days after. The longer you spend with them, the more you find yourself asking – what are the motivations for what I do? Do I manipulate? What would people see if they spent time, sitting and looking into me? Would they like what they see? Do I?
Good questions all. Time will tell – my reaction now is that though it’s very, very good, that this film isn’t a masterpiece. It does, though, invite me to look deeply. That’s a good and brave thing to ask.
I rated this film 4/5 on rottentomatoes.come and 8/10 on imdb.com