“The Master” created a significant amount of buzz when the project was announced almost two years ago. The character of Lancaster Dodd, played by the talented Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was widely known to be based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Given how protective the Scientologist community has been about perceived attacks on its church, many observers expected it to be the most controversial movie of the year.
Audiences expecting a rough treatment of the church, however, would not get one. The “Cause” told of in the film was largely background in a story focused on the friendship between two troubled men.
Despite limited release, the film broke attendance records and was expected to do better than this summer’s indie hit “Moonrise Kingdom.” In the weeks since its release, however, the film has quietly died at the box office, and the reason for the slump in attendance is not entirely due to the false expectations set for the film. Audiences came to realize that while the photography and acting were a pleasure to watch, the film ultimately failed on a deeper level.
The plot centers on two men played by Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell is a foul-mouthed, alcoholic sex-addict. After possibly poisoning a man he stows away on a yacht hosting the wedding of Dodd’s daughter. Upon finding out about Quell, Dodd befriends him, and the remainder of the film chronicles the rise and fall of their relationship.
The performances by the two leads are definitely Oscar-worthy and prove that they may indeed be two of the greatest actors of our time. And thanks to director Paul Thomas Anderson nearly every shot in the film was pleasurable to behold as well.
The film, however, remained emotionally distant –– and not simply in style. Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” is in it’s presentation one of the coldest films I’ve seen and yet succeeded in making me care. Even when a film’s meaning may seem incomprehensible the viewer should be able to experience some sort of emotional reaction.
The greatness of filmmaking lies in the many artistic avenues available to it. Film combines writing, acting, photography, and music while taking advantage of the unique opportunities provided by editing and the motion picture. If the script is difficult to understand on a first viewing, an intelligent audience should be able to have an emotional experience based upon any one of these tools at the director’s disposal. The surrealism of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” baffles most viewers the first time they see it. Yet Lynch uses the unease and confusion created in its scenes to force the audience into a state of despair reflecting that of his main character. Understanding the literal progression of the story becomes irrelevant precisely because Lynch succeeds in causing an emotional understanding.
“The Master” has a fairly straightforward plot, but it it seems Anderson, for all his technical skill, forgot the most important aspect of filmmaking and art in general: emotional resonance. His characters are ambiguous and fail to make up for their ambiguity. Anderson directs scenes of intense emotional conflict between the two characters, but fails to elicit a similar reaction in his audience.
It’s disappointing that this same director only ten years ago made the engaging “Boogie Nights” and the moving “Magnolia.” The most I can say of his latest effort is that it’s merely interesting.