Paul Thomas Anderson’s attempt to chronicle the rise of an L. Ron Hubbard type, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is crippled by what the director probably deems a necessary evil. Dodd finds the damaged and cruel WWII veteran Joaquin Phoenix, and through his character (a brutish Of Mice and Menesque Lennie), we see how the weak can be co-opted and conscripted by a charismatic charlatan. But to dramatize that point, we have to spend an inordinate amount of time with a vicious, unsympathetic thug. Phoenix’s rendition is jarring, but unpleasant, as his character is mentally unstable and ape-like.
Amy Adams plays Dodd’s fanatical wife and observes of Phoenix, “He’s a drunk and he’s dangerous and he will be our undoing if we have him here.”
And that’s what happens to the movie. Phoenix progresses, but from feral animal to a more controllable and controlled beast. Not a particularly interesting or illuminating journey.
The film is also repetitive. The scenes of Phoenix’s “processing” feel interminable, Phoenix skulks and broods and then attacks critics of Hoffman, and Hoffman charmingly explains his cobbled together philosophy, until he is questioned, and then he explodes.
The performances of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams are all excellent (all three received deserved Oscar nominations), but this is a very long, awful dull, hard slog and the ending is ridiculous.
The Master is a marathon of well shot tedium. It’s also a bit of a cop out. If you’re going to take on the genesis of Scientology, why be so oblique? Why choose to focus so tightly on the relationship between the Hubbard character and a baboon like Phoenix?