My review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has just gone live over at VideoVista.
Set in the aftermath of World War II, the film follows a thoroughly disreputable alcoholic and adventurer as he tumbles from steady job, to menial labour and finally into alcohol-sodden destitution. While on a particularly epic bender, the alcoholic (played by Joaquin Phoenix) finds his way onto a ship commanded by an equally disreputable mystic (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Clearly modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, this mystic is in the process of founding a cult that borrows as much from traditional mysticism as it does from experimental psychology. Sensing a degree of kinship despite the differences in their fortunes, the two men begin a sort of epic bromance that eventually comes to trouble the mystic’s terrifyingly ambitious and controlling wife. Much like the mystic, she sees the similarities between the two men and so she is worried that the alcoholic’s refusal to mend his ways will wind up dragging down the mystic.
The tension between the two characters reminded me very much of Claude Chabrol’s wonderfully murky Juste Avant La Nuit (1971), in which two characters are bound together by their intense resemblance as well as their intense hatred of what the other person represents. In my review of Juste Avant La Nuit I noted that:
The early British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once said that we do not want to kill the people we hate most, instead we want to kill the people who evoke in us the most unbearable conflicts. This is because it is human nature to try to resolve inner conflicts decisively. To be one thing or another. Much conciliatory art (such as the films that dominate the Gay Indie film scene), is based upon the idea that conflicts are a result of confusion. Confusion that can be solved simply by ignoring one part of our nature. However, the reality is that inner conflicts define us as people and drive us forward. They are not battles that can be won, they are battles that are forever being fought and the dust cloud that rise from the battlefield is who and what we are. When Charles met Laura and her need for complex sexual power dynamics, he was reminded of the conflicts that rage within his bourgeois existence : The urge to be free, the urge to be submissive. By having an affair with Laura, he was forced to confront his own uncertainties and rather than assume the responsibility for ending the relationship, he chose to erase Laura. To erase the source of his confusion and the reminder of his own conflicted nature.
While I enjoyed the film quite a bit, I am also aware that it felt like a wasted opportunity. As I say in my review:
While there is no denying that The Master is a beautifully made and surprisingly intense film, it is also a film that fails to make full use of its considerable assets. Indeed, despite being inspired by the founder of scientology, Anderson’s film offers no real commentary on cults other than the rather bland observation that the men who lead them are occasionally rogues. This criticism can also be levelled at There Will Be Blood in that Anderson took a complex satirical novel about the Tea Pot Dome scandal and reduced it down to a story about an oil baron being a bit of a prick. That Anderson’s films lack anything approaching a subtext or a message is undeniably a result of his placing characters at the centre of his creative process. There Will Be Blood and The Master suggest that, while this process can produce very intense films with beautifully realised characters, it is not particularly adept at producing smart films and that is a terrible shame.
The Master had the opportunity to explore not only the psychological aftermath of the Second World War but also the complex psychological dependencies that go into establishing a cult. However, rather than exploring these huge meaty issues, Paul Thomas Anderson produced little more than an entertainingly intense two-hander that is all about the performances. Which is a shame really…