America’s unending fascination with cults has no direct translation over here in Europe. That might explain the subject matter of ‘The Master’, ostensibly about the birth of Scientology, but it can’t explain why the film is so staggeringly, devastatingly boring. I’d go so far as to suggest that this is among the worst five films I’ve ever seen, and in this I’m including ‘Gigli’, the director’s cut of ‘Into The Void’ and the entire output of Arthur Askey.
Paul Thomas Anderson (not to be confused with Paul WS Anderson, who makes the comparitively more riveting ‘Resident Evil’ films) has long been a critics’ darling, but ‘There Will Be Blood’ was a miracle of concision compared to this pretentious, shallow, incoherent, masturbatory acting exercise. Phillip Seymour Hoffman grandstands easily as the stand-in for L Ron Hubbard, and Joaquin Phoenix gives a bizarrely mimed, gurning performance so off-puttingly exaggerated that he makes Norman Wisdom look like Alec Guinness.
We begin at the end of the war, with Phoenix’s alkie marine failing to adjust to civilian life as a department store photographer (it’s never a good to try and strangle your clients), falling in love, then hopping a party cruise governed by Hoffman. The Master has written a book called ‘The Cause’ and is surrounded by an adoring family who watch his nonsensical psychotherapies ensnare gullible old broads while Phoenix mixes him illicit hooch and beats up anyone who doesn’t agree with Hoffman’s barking ideas.
We follow this surrogate father/son fable (yes, another one from Anderson) through a few seasons, Hoffman sings several painful songs and the film simply stops, having failed to provide any data, details, conclusions, comprehension or even basic storytelling skills.
Questions abound; if it’s really about Scientology why isn’t Hubbard namechecked? Why the failure of nerve? Why no mention of his SF career or the present-day implications of the cult? What makes Hoffman tick? Why is he so sure of himself? Why is he so readily believed? And even if it’s meant to be Hubbard why not enlighten us about the Master’s background, instead of concentrating on his dim, mumbling, damaged, psychotic sidekick?
‘Here’s a good idea,’ said Steve Martin in ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’, ‘when you tell a story, try to have a point’, but apparently that lesson has fallen on deaf ears, because ‘The Master’ fails to make any point at all. The film looks nice enough despite continuity errors, but an atonal ‘arthouse’ score grates, the women have nothing much to do except model fifties clothes, you could drive dumptrucks through the gaps in the sparse, slow dialogue and the running time is appallingly, watch-checkingly long.
UK posters feature the raving praise of The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, who should have his eyes put out with hot spoons and nailed to posts, and be banned from ever reviewing again. As an exercise in weasel advertising it’s clever, though, as the quotes are repeated in reverse, making it appear that there are twice as many. I wish I’d checked the generally stinking US reviews, because I’d like an evening of my life back. After emerging from the cinema, feeling as if we’d been stunned with housebricks, my companion admitted he hadn’t realised the film was about Scientology at all until he overheard someone in the foyer mention it. Yes, it really is that opaque.