Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has all the ingredients for a cinematic treat. Two larger than life, central characters inexorably drawn to one another. Two towering performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman that bring them powerfully to life. And a story based around the figure of L. Ron Hubbard and the cult of Scientology that he managed to conjure up, like all the best American religions, from thin air.
Throw in a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and factor in the Silver Lion which the film won at last year’s Venice Film Festival, together with its slew of stellar reviews, and that you’d think would be that.
But none of the film’s impressive elements have anywhere to go, because there’s no actual story for them to service. It’s not about anything.
The miraculous birth and growth of Scientology gives the film a fascinating backdrop, but it’s never allowed to become the film’s subject. That instead is the enigmatic but all too elusive character fleshed out brilliantly by the similarly troubled Joaquin Phoenix.
But, understandably, the film is forever being distracted by the equally compelling Svengali figure of Seymour Hoffman and his mysterious cult. And so it hovers, torn between the two, and ends up going nowhere.
Anderson’s a curious fish. And this is hardly the first time he’s had difficulty with story.
His first film was Hard Eight in 1996. But it was his next outing, Boogie Nights in ’97 that catapulted him into the spotlight. And for its first couple of hours, Boogie Nights was the best Scorsese film for years. But then it just sort of petered out.
Magnolia was next, in ’99. But what started out as a small, personal exploration of Larkin’s they fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do became hopelessly bloated. The same story was increasingly diluted by being pointlessly repeated, three or four times. And the whole thing sank under the weight of its own importance.
Punch-Drunk Love was next in ’02. Oh dear. All you can say about that particular film is that it’s the only Adam Sandler vehicle to have been intentionally unfunny.
There Will Be Blood saw Anderson on something of a retrieval mission in ’07. And it duly cleaned up at both the Academy Awards and the box office. But once you see beyond yet another mesmeric performance from Daniel Day Lewis, you come to realize that, despite the film’s insistent noise, the actual story is disappointingly thin.
That’s because the film can’t decide who the antagonist is; the preacher, his son, or Day Lewis himself. So instead of being drawn to the dynamic driving the story, all you’re left with is the surface brilliance of the central performance.
Much the same thing happens with The Master. Anderson clearly has a gift for imagining compelling characters. And he obviously has a palpable capacity to help the wonderful actors he surrounds himself with inhabit them. He has a fantastic eye, and he’s an appealingly and impressively mercurial film maker. All he needs now is to team up with a similarly serious writer to help give his stories the kind of substance his flair and purpose demand.
See the trailer for the The Master here.
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