There’s a hole in my soul

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.

As a fan of the fantasy and science fiction genres, both in literature and film, this reviewer is sometimes challenged to defend her appreciation for stories that aren’t grounded in everyday reality. There are plenty of people out there who have no patience for alternate universes that are preposterous by definition. Non-fiction is infinitely more satisfying for the likes of them.

But when it comes to story, I love nothing better than the escape offered by secondary worlds when they’re done well, with internal consistency. So it was with considerable cognitive dissonance that I found myself sitting through The Master – a movie set in a gritty post-World War II milieu, dealing with the very real issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and riffing on the life of a historical personage, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard – and saying to myself over and over, “This is preposterous. This is preposterous.”

Don’t get me wrong: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a visually arresting, extraordinarily well-made piece of cinematic craft. It’s probably going to walk away with a pile of Oscars – although the two male leads, Joaquin Phoenix as the violent alcoholic drifter Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult leader who takes him in, Lancaster Dodd, may well cancel each other out in the race for Best Actor honors. Every shot is perfectly framed and lit for our admiration, and the score by Jonny Greenwood, interpolating period pop tunes with spare, dissonant classical passages, is a knockout.

The problem is that there’s a big empty hole in the middle of The Master, exacerbated by its 137-minute running time and stately pace. When one finds oneself with so much leisure to admire the technical trappings of a movie, sometimes it’s a sign that something much more important is missing: a story that fully engages one’s interest and protagonists that creep into one’s heart. In this case, the word “creep” is more appropriately used to describe the personalities of those protagonists. There’s nobody living here to whom we can relate, and the dialogue that comes out of the characters’ mouths often sounds like the sort of utterances that tabloids warn us are a sure sign that our neighbors and co-workers are really aliens disguised as humans. The latter charge applies most pertinently to Dodd’s ramrod-spined wife Peggy, chillingly played by Amy Adams, but it’s true of the other central characters as well. Nobody you or I know really talks like this.

For all that we might want to sympathize with a veteran suffering from PTSD, Phoenix is just too good at inhabiting the hunched-shouldered, twisted-faced Quell as a creature of pure id, like the force-field space monster in Forbidden Planet. He has no ambition whatsoever; he thinks about sex all the time; he drinks anything remotely alcoholic that he can get his hands on, including paint thinner and film developer; he loses his temper and picks fights at the drop of a hat. The writer/director and the actor give the viewer no way in. Quell is too pathetic to be a villain, but too repugnant to be a hero. There’s a scene late in the film where Quell is riding Dodd’s motorcycle at high speed across a Southwestern salt flat, and I found myself wishing that he’d drive straight into a rock wall and flatten himself. That can’t be a good sign.

Dodd also has a wounded soul with a streak of rage, though it’s usually much more effectively suppressed than Quell’s, and this appears to be the basis of their toxic bonding. Dodd wields humor and charm considerable enough to seem believable as a man whom legions would follow down the path of a crackpot religion inspired by fantasy scenarios of alien intervention in human evolution. But we know full well that – as his son Val (Jesse Plemons) puts it – “He’s making it all up as he goes along.” Whatever likability Dodd commands teeters on the precipice of a manipulative megalomania only slightly more civilized at its root than Quell’s madness. Hoffman is brilliant, indeed “masterful” in the role; I’d go so far as to say that this will be his Citizen Kane. But we still come away not really caring about him.

According to the advance scuttlebutt about this film, Anderson denies that his intent was to skewer Scientology and its adherents by making a roman à clef about it. He has said that he regards the drama about a man with PTSD as The Master’s central theme. If that were true, one would think that he would’ve written Quell as a somewhat less repellent character. In any case, perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that a movie that is at least partially about a religion cynically spawned by an unsuccessful sci-fi novelist’s imagination has everything going for it but a soul.

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