We all look for truth in art, and we praise those who can throw a stone in a reflecting pool and still manage to show us ourselves in the ripples. In The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson instead presents us with an empty swimming pool and tells us there’s insight to be had if the viewer would just jump in. Empty are the words of pseudo-Scientology guru Lancaster Dodd (the eponymous “Master,” as performed by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and empty is the film that presents those words and the psycho-babble mind games they comprise ad absurdum. While I can’t accuse Anderson of “making it up as he goes along,” as Dodd’s son says of his father to Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled Freddie Quell character, I do accuse Anderson of presenting his audience with a host of singularly unappealing characters and compelling the viewer to go through the same vacuous therapy sessions to which they’re subjected. It can be argued that no character achieves a better understanding of his or her self through the exercises depicted in the film, as much as they’d like to convince themselves otherwise. Likewise, as we watch these sessions play out, we come through them with no more than the tentative tendrils of mental illness evoked by Jonny Greenwood’s dementia-veined score. We begin with a “Huh?” and end with a noncommittal shrug of indifference.
It is tedium rather than tension that comprises The Master. With little narrative drive and characters achieving the barest degrees of an arc by the end of film’s ponderous running time, one can’t help but wonder: Is this all there is? Joaquin Phoenix, the right half of his face appearing to be stricken by palsy, swaggers through the movie with a simian gait and the billy goatish, priapic demeanor of an addled-brained Pan in high-waisted khakis. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard-lite Master never succeeds in giving the viewer a true understanding of what motivates him or what he finds so compelling about Phoenix’s three-sneezes-away-from-a-retard character. Their frequent outbursts of violence and shared love of drinking turpentine are the only traits that seem to unite them. Unlike the grotesque Phoenix, Hoffman at least inadvertently amuses while getting wife-wanked into submission at his bathroom sink or when riding a motorcycle in such a way that reminds the viewer of Toad of Toad Hall on his ill-fated wild ride in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows.
Meticulous period detail, 70mm cinematography, and end of the year Oscar-baiting performances fail to provide any insight into the nature of the creepy and exploitive cult of Scientology. That story remains to be told. The one on display is a ponderous exercise in primal yawn therapy.
The Master opens today in Philly-area theaters.