** Spoiler Alert **
The Master was marketed as being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard. Actually, let me rephrase that. The Master was marketed as NOT being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard... wink wink. They even went so far as to mention at every turn that Scientologists were upset about what this film would reveal and the director personally screened the film for Tom Cruise as a peace offering. Essentially, they sold this as a Scientology exposé by denying that’s what it was.
Well, I don’t know if the character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is anything like L. Ron Hubbard, but it doesn’t really matter. He never purports to run a religion. The film doesn’t delve into whatever Scientology is really about. And the film only focuses on Dodd tangentially.
Dodd befriends Freddie and takes him in. Freddie then repeatedly defends Dodd from disloyal followers and outside skeptics by beating them up as Dodd moves pointlessly through the plot. If he’s building a church, you don’t see it. All you see is the interaction of Dodd and Freddie and Freddie fighting people who denigrate Dodd. Eventually, the film ends at an arbitrary point in Freddie’s life.
Why This SucksLet me start by telling you how most critics responded, because that might tell you what the problem is here. No doubt they watched this film having no idea what was going on. Little is explained and the focus of the film is on Freddie’s erratic behavior, which is basically the entirety of the plot. Then the credits start rolling. The critics look around and see the angry looks on the faces of the proles, so they instinctively jump up and applaud like Ruby Rhod’s sycophants in The Fifth Element:
“Oh my! Now I know what anguish feels like!” gushes one critic.Meanwhile, the actors are giving interviews in which they all say, “I wanted to do this because this is a real actor’s film.” Translation: It’s melodrama pretending to be insightful. The public? Well, this $32 million film grossed all of $28 million and it wouldn’t have done that without the deception of the supposed Scientology exposé.
“I have truly learned something about the human condition!” gushes another.
“Yes, I am a better person for watching this film,” replies the first.
Here’s the thing. Biographies are often lousy films because a human life is not amenable to compelling storytelling. Sure, there are parts of our lives that would make excellent stories, but not our whole lives at once. So from the get go, this is problematic being essentially a biography. Director Paul Thomas Anderson tries to fix this by limiting the film to a small time period in Freddie’s life: the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. Unfortunately, Anderson still fails to give us a compelling storyline. Instead, we just see a series of five or six minute long incidents that involve Freddie misbehaving and Dodd responding to that. So again, there is no real plot... it’s just an outline of moments, and the moments are so small and insignificant that they don’t form a plot, just a picture of Freddie as pathetic.
Even worse, the film tries a couple times to wedge in this idea that the reason Freddie is so pathetic is that he’s suffering from his exposure to war. This is a popular theme in Hollywood right now and they are trying to work it into films, particularly films about World War II. Thus, characters periodically say things like, “The war taught us to fight, and now that’s all we know.” But see, here’s the problem: (1) we never get a baseline to tell us that Freddie wasn’t pathetic before, and (2) his only evidence of having mental problems is that he’s a belligerent assh*le. So that doesn’t wash. Nor is any real point made about this, e.g. there’s no solution offered, so it feels gratuitous.
This film goes wrong on so many levels. For one thing, it never builds a plot. It wrongly assumes that a series of five minute vignettes is good enough. And while that can work if the vignettes are interesting, these aren’t. Rather than being mini-stories, these vignettes are just moments of Freddie misbehaving. It doesn’t help that Freddie isn’t a real person either or that he ends up being tangential to the thing that was used to hook people into seeing the movie. Even worse, little is communicated to the audience. There are long periods without dialog, the characters don’t explain what is going on around them or in their lives, and even the relationships of the characters aren’t clear. Nor does it help that all this craziness Freddie does might have been shocking to an audience in the 1950s, but reeks of Oscar-bait acting today.
Unless you need to see an example of crazy, say to help you fail a disability test, then avoid this film.