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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Master

Or: The Sound of Drums (signify that two hours of your life are gone forever).

All things, no matter how vile, have some flicker of usefulness to them. The Maser’s, despite being lewd, disjointed and alienating, does provide A-1 examples of good actors making the most of bad circumstances.

And circumstances are bad indeed: full frontal nudity, to unfinished plot arcs to the worst script I’ve had the misfortune to hear in a long time, the film from stem to stern is so riddled with plot holes and encumbered with weak artistic choices that as it limps across a turgid sea, one cannot help but shudder, sneer and, finally, laugh (and that not kindly).

The Master follows the adventures of Freddy Quell (Phoenix) a troubled Navy veteran washed up on the unforgiving shores of 1950’s america with nothing but a voracious appetite for the ways of the flesh, a penitent for violence, and a talent for making Five Island (read made with Paint Thinner) Gin. Alone and hungry he falls in with a mysterious and kindly man, Lancaster Dobbs (Hoffman) the founder of “The Cause”, a new socio-religious movement intent on exploring past lives through mental time travel and restoring humanity to its “inherent state of perfect”. He is assisted by his legions of WASP followers and his latest wife Peggy (Adams), sweet as sugar and hard as nails. If “The Cause” bares any resemblance to other more pertinent cults active in the world today, I cannot give you a list of true parallels. If you are interested in finding any parallels I suggest you look them up on line as the film will not be worth your trouble.

Anderson is undeniably a bold film maker, and is to be congratulated for recreating the glamor and diamond grime the ’50’s and his deft handling of the films many continuous shots. If only he would have turned to the script over to someone else. The disjointed sentences, coming out of left field (and often triple approved by the Department of Redundancy Department) bean us over the head. Not even the excuse that most of them are spoken by a deranged ingrate and a man who may or may not be making up everything off the cuff, can excuses it. The crowning example comes at the films climax, where things suddenly take a musical turn. It’s so unexpected so, weighty, staggering under its own imposed significance that you have to laugh or toss a shoe through the television.

But as I was saying, even vile misshaped things have their good hearts. Hoffman, inane speeches aside, does a wonderful job of trying to recreate the modern day Joseph Smith. He is so genial that we can’t help but rooting for him, so mercurial that we can’t help but question him and so shocking (when he needs to be) that we can’t help but jump back. He does nothing less than play and unplayable character. And if his performance lacks any foundations, at least we can explore the lopsided remainder and mark its sordid charm.

An even more impressive (if much more leery) commendation goes to Phoenix for taking on Freddie Quell. The actor delved so deeply into his characters murky waters I was tempted to do my Olivier impersonation, “My dear chap, haven't you ever tried acting?” Phoenix breaks toilets, fellow actors and all bounds of civility with an odd brand of cheerful violence, that only quells in his deep connections with Dodd and his creepy stalker attempts at courting. Those who watch the film may entertain themselves by puzzling over Phoenix's choice of posture, which resembles a chimp crossed with a psychotic chicken. It’s not as though Freddy is badly acted (he isn’t) or utterly despicable (he is), the main problem is why anyone (even in the navy, even in “The Cause”) would have put up with him. The greatest surprise to me, and perhaps I know those demon days too well, is that Freddy hadn’t been shot, hanged, red lighted or chemically castrated by court order (and the last happened far more often then you think) before the story began.

And finally, the Theodora to Dodds Constantine good ol’ reliable Adams. It was a relief to see her row away from her usual type of ingenue innocent into something more complex and prickly. Peggy may be all smiles and cherry pie in company, but her executions and uses of force ( though mostly social and psychological) are well thought through and come as breaths of bracing wind in the feted malaise of her company. After one particularly uncomfortable confrontation Adams walks away disdainfully washing her hands. There is much I would give to see her play the Scottish Lady, with daggers in her smile.

In short, unless you are an actor yourself and want to learn tricks for dealing with the rough and tumble parts of your career, how to fight upstream, avoid this film. This reviewer can only hope that its ungainly carcass will float away into the seas of time and capsize, leaving no trace of its foul and miserable cargo and leaving its crew to swim on to other, brighter voyages.

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