Monday, 10 March 2014


“Defined in psychological terms, a fanatic is a man who consciously over-compensates a secret doubt.” - Aldous Huxley

We watched a curious film recently, one which I can’t really say whether I liked or not. It was a little tedious, but at the same time one wanted to see what was going to happen, if anything. It reminded of many other films and novels and one could see the inspiration for it must have come from a range of other pieces. It was Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film, “The Master” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. At 144 minutes it was a very long, long film – or so it seemed. The film was written and directed by Anderson.

Anderson has several successful movies under his belt, and I have seen and enjoyed some of them: “Magnolia” (perhaps my favourite), “Punch-Drunk Love”, and “There Will Be Blood” (another very good film). So this film of his rather disappointed us. I suspect that in a few weeks time, I shall have quite forgotten it. Don’t take me wrong, it is a highly polished piece of film-making, with good acting, great cinematography (70 mm print), good music, great period sets, but it lacked a certain something and failed to fully engage me. On reflection, the most serious defect was the weakness of the script.

In a nutshell, the plot concerns Freddie Quell (Phoenix) who is a troubled alcoholic and self-destructive drifter. Quell unwittingly becomes the right-hand man of Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), ‘The Master’ of a cult named ‘The Cause’ in post-WWII USA. Their curious relationship is the centrepiece of the film. The film explores cult fanaticism and exposes the lies that are peddled as religion. It is a thinly veiled swipe at Scientology, and it did cause ripples amongst Scientologists even before its release. Anderson has not mentioned Scientology, of course, and has thus broadened the scope of his film.

Hoffman was an accomplished actor and plays this role with great gusto, with almost caricature vehemence, and Amy Adams is highly effective as the Master’s wife. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s film and he gives a great performance, even though it was difficult for him to do more with the material given the weakness of the story line.

The film fails because it ignores simple story-telling rules. The script provides no opportunity for crisis, resolution and strong dénouement. It undulates weakly over two hours about a straight line. Although the actors perform very well and the scenes are constructed well, the movie just continues to plod along, seemingly going nowhere - there is no strong development. Is the film about an alcoholic misfit who has been scarred by war? Is it about a cult leader who has psychological issues? Is it about the development of characters so that they become better/worse? No, to all of these. It is a film made of random interactions between the characters, scenes that don’t add to a good story.

We really wanted to like this film but ultimately when it finished, we thought: “Oh, is that it?” and probably felt relief. Perhaps another of its weak points was the lack of any character that was truly likeable, I don’t know… One may hope that Anderson’s next film “Inherent Vice”, now in post-production, is a much better one.


  1. Yes, agree with your review. Kept watching it but got very bored and was disappointed with the ending.

  2. yes, I agree slightly I kept watching things too though I suppose things are only ever boring unless they shake up your own life, then things could variate enormously