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The Master - Review

The Master

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

PAUL Thomas Anderson’s The Master may boast some powerhouse performances but it struggles to engage emotionally and badly loses its way.

Where the first half grips by virtue of the mystery surrounding its characters, the second half sags as viewers come to realise that there’s not a great deal to find out and even less to like.

Ex-Navy man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) seems to be drifting through life until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a seemingly charismatic writer and preacher who immediately looks to enrol him in his new group, The Cause.

The two men subsequently form a close bond that is frowned upon by Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), especially as Freddie’s more wayward, even violent tendencies threaten the already shaky credibility of the group.

Lancaster, however, sees Freddie as a challenge who should not be forsaken and defiantly attempts to turn his life around and re-sculpt him in The Cause’s image.

Early in its production, Anderson’s film was rumoured to be a metaphor for the origins of Scientology but this proves largely untrue. If the director intended for that to be the case, then the references are very subtle.

Rather, his film is more concerned with the relationship between the two men and even neglects to give Lancaster’s cult much context.

As the men in question, Phoenix and Hoffman deliver showy performances of complex men that frequently come together for a couple of grand-standing confrontations but which ultimately can’t mask the fact that the men they are playing have very little to offer.

Phoenix, especially, is intense, edgy and a hopelessly lost individual whose journey initially grips, especially during his early exchanges with Hoffman. But he’s a difficult character to like and Anderson doesn’t always seem to know how to handle him, especially towards the end.

Hoffman, for his part, combines charisma with mounting creepiness in his attempts to control Freddie and is also a fascinating enigma to be around early on.

But Anderson’s screenplay does little to suggest how Lancaster’s group could become so influential, giving it little context, and fails to really provide a satisfying arc for their relationship as a whole.

Adams, meanwhile, drifts in and out, making the most of her scenes, but could have benefitted from a little more focus on her character’s motivations and desire to control.

But then the film itself becomes so over-wrought and flabby that it’s difficult to care about anything that’s happening or anyone in it. Anderson doesn’t help by delivering an ending that underwhelms and which gives rise to the suspicion that, rather like the assertion of one of his characters, he’s been making it up as he went along.

But then this was the kind of film that Anderson has long been threatening to make. As masterful as the likes of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood are, they could so easily have gone wrong.

But then by living on the edge and pushing cinematic boundaries and conventions, that’s the risk you take.

Hence, while his film may look great and is worth seeing for the strength of its leading trio, it’s ultimately emotionally empty and pretty darn ugly when stripped back to its basics. It’s an epic film that promises a lot more than it delivers and which feels much less than the sum of its parts.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 137mins
UK Release Date: November 2, 2012