John Anderson on 'The Master'

We are very happy to have this essay on Paul Thomas Anderson's epic, "The Master," from our reviewer John Anderson. The film opened in limited release on Friday and will be showing nationwide starting this weekend:

Attending one of the many sold-out shows of The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, during its opening weekend in New York, I had the misfortune of sitting next to a young man who not only had a laugh like a French poodle's hiccup, but erupted in bewildering mirth at almost everything that happened in the film. When the movie's central character, maladjusted war veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), drank photographic chemicals in his undying effort to remain intoxicated, the kid cracked up. When Freddie debased himself sexually, the barking beside me suggested a kennel. When Freddie smashed his jail-cell toilet—after his arrest with the Svengali-like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—the young fellow became virtually apoplectic.

Though my seat mate was a particularly volatile example of the nervous giggler, his laughter resembled what you often hear at Hollywood comedies that rely on gross-out jokes and cringe-inducing situations, intended to make the viewer uncomfortable and apt to laugh, simply for lack of knowing what else to do. "The Master" is not a comedy, of course. It is Anderson's masterwork of mood, character and religious criticism, allegedly inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. It is less a coherent narrative than a tone poem. Yet the film does make the viewer supremely uncomfortable. Freddie, walking around with his id hanging out, is too much the vulnerable, damaged and malleable disciple-to-be not to strike a chord of kinship with an audience that will try to dismiss him, and find it impossible.

While Anderson himself has said "The Master" was inspired by Hubbard, the film companies involved have denied it, probably to avoid incurring the wrath of what has been called the most litigious religious organization since the Spanish Inquisition. In this case, though, the Church of Scientology is something of a scapegoat. Anderson's films—notably, the porn-industry epic "Boogie Nights"—have often dealt with our collective, desperate need for family, for belonging, for an embrace by the proverbial "something greater than ourselves." My pal at the screening might have wanted to deny it, but Freddie is all of us, despite or because of his self-doubt, incendiary anger, profound litany of regret and burning need to believe in what Lancaster Dodd is selling.

Read the full review here.

Tim Reidy

 

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