Scientology Film “The Master” Disappoints.

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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