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On Movies: 'The Master' runs too long without answering enough

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012 - Freddie Quell is a mess, a "shell-shocked" young World War II veteran who is addicted to alcohol (including paint thinner and torpedo fuel), sex (alone and with others) and rage. As played -- and at times overplayed -- by Joaquin Phoenix, Freddie is quite literally screwed-up, his spine a taut spring he controls by keeping his arms stiffly akimbo, his mouth a curl of pain and anger.

Freddie is one of the two principals of "The Master," an ambitious, at times difficult new film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "There Will Be Blood") is one of the most interesting and original filmmakers working today.

I think anybody serious about film should see "The Master." But it is not Anderson's best movie. It has moments of sheer brilliance; and visually it is, at times, stunning. But overall, it is a bit disappointing; in part because the two central characters have become somewhat tiresome by the time the film ends after 2 hours and 41 minutes.

"The Master" is set in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. America is once again reinventing itself. Amid the cultural turmoil, millions seek the Meaning of Life. Swank sea-going cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is more than happy to supply it.

Dodd's cult is called "The Cause" and its doctrine depends upon "processing" -- a relentless cross examination that forces the subject to face up to all his sins, real and imagined. When Freddie stumbles drunkenly onto a borrowed yacht filled with Dodd's well-appointed followers, Dodd is immediately taken with him, in part because he is challenged to "cure" Freddie of his demons, in part because, it becomes increasingly clear, he is at least half in love with the ex-sailor.

In the time frame of "The Master," Dodd is just getting started as a guru. The story line seems loosely inspired by the early years of what became Scientology, and Dodd bears many resemblances, physical and ideological, to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But "The Master" is by no means an expose of Scientology, as was once rumored. Writer-director Anderson, above all a humanist, was more interested in the psychology of the two men as their relationship develops than in the organization itself.

There is clearly a homoerotic element to the friendship between Freddie and Dodd. The two men never acknowledge that, although they do enjoy a little brotherly wrestling in one telling scene that has Dodd's quietly controlling wife (Amy Ryan) rolling her eyes. In that regard, the most startling scene in the movie -- as simultaneously funny and tragic as the torrent of frogs in "Magnolia" -- comes when Dodd, in his cups, sings a goofy Top 40 love song to Freddie. But at the heart of "The Master," I think, is the question of freedom.

After lengthy, repetitious and often humiliating "processing" sessions,  Freddie seems to have achieved a certain amount of control over his unruly id. But by submitting to Dodd's psychological oppression, does he also give up a large chunk of his soul? This question seems to inform the movie as a whole, including the ending, which is not as noncommittal as it may seem at first glance.

The problem with the movie is that it spends most of its time and energy on the relationship between Dodd and Freddie. But Freddie is not very bright and is so mentally unstable that it is easy to see how he could be mentally seduced by a clever guru.

In the background of the film are all these much brighter and much more sophisticated and educated people who, at least on the surface, are not suffering from alcoholism or post-traumatic stress syndrome. But they, too, fall for Dodd's line of gab.


Why do intelligent, seemingly well-adjusted people join cults? That's the question I'm interested in and "The Master" raises it but does little or nothing to answer it. As portrayed by Hoffman, Dodd is charming and glib, but quite superficial. At one point in the movie, Dodd's grown son says incredulously to Freddie, "But he's making it all up as he goes along. Why can't you see that?"

Why indeed. More importantly, why can't everybody else see it? That's the question I wanted the movie to answer, and it didn't.

Opens Friday Sept. 21