Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Master (4 Stars)

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an American sailor in the Second World War. When the war is over he is traumatised by his experiences and is unable to settle down. After doing a series of jobs he stows away in a yacht one night. When he wakes up the yacht is at sea, and he meets the yacht's owner, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Far from being angry, Lancaster offers Freddie work on the yacht, and he also invites him to his daughter's wedding. Freddie soon discovers that Lancaster is the leader of a cult called The Cause, and the other passengers on the yacht call him Master.

Freddie becomes a close friend of Lancaster and joins the cult, even though the other members warn Lancaster against him. They think that Freddie is unwilling to get over his alcohol addiction and become a better man. Freddie also has problems with aggression. Whenever anyone insults Lancaster or The Cause Freddie beats him up. Lancaster says that he doesn't approve of violence, but makes no attempt to stop Freddie doing it again.

The fictional cult, The Cause, is obviously based on Scientology. In The Cause people advance through psychoanalysis rather than meditation. It is taught that perfection can only be attained by remembering and dealing with things that happened in past lives. Apart from the similarity in the teachings, the film mirrors conflicts that Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard had with his son and other family members.

The film created controversy as soon as it was announced. The similarities to Scientology were enough to make many cult members angry. Legal proceedings were avoided by never claiming the film was about Scientology, even though everyone knew it was. Apart from this, the film isn't directly about the cult; the central character is Freddie Quell, and it follows his spiritual journey, while The Cause and its members remain in the background, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering him.

The powerful performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman won them Oscar nominations. The only thing I would fault is that the film has no resolution. Freddie drifts into The Cause, remains a while and drifts back out with almost nothing to show for it. He hasn't become a better man. On the other hand, I'm sure that this was intentional. Other films by Paul Thomas Anderson, which he both writes and directs, have the same style. One of the things that screenwriters learn is that the characters in their scripts should follow arcs. They should start the film as one person and end as another. In a typical character arc a person begins either as weak or morally objectionable, and then the film presents challenges, at the end of which the person is stronger or a better person. This might be good storytelling, but is it the way real life works? Not necessarily. There's nothing wrong with experimental films that do without character arcs, but to me personally I feel that something is lacking.

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