Follow the Leader ; Paul Thomas Anderson's Original Take on the Power Play between an Alcoholic and a Charismatic Cult Leader Reminiscent of L Ron Hubbard Is Sometimes Difficult to Watch but Repays the Attention
Sexton, David, The Evening Standard (London, England)
FILM OF THE WEEK THE MASTER Cert 15, 144 mins NO RECENT movie has opened up such a big divide between critics and paying cinema audiences as The Master. In the US the film garnered rave reviews but cinemagoers have stayed away or, reportedly, walked out halfway through.
A quick steer, right now? If you loved There Will Be Blood, you will want at least to make your own mind up about The Master, since you presumably rate Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the best directors now working. But if you didn't much care for that, save yourself the trouble. You will certainly find The Master harder going and less rewarding. It is two hours 24 minutes long, doesn't tell much of a story and it is difficult to interpret.
Freddie Quell ( Joaquin Phoenix) is a damaged, alcoholic, perverse sailor whom we first meet as the war with Japan is ending in 1945. We see him drunk on a beach, perhaps in Guam, simulating sex with a woman made from sand, then masturbating. His face is contorted, his whole body bent, his movements simian, yet he is also peculiarly cocky, given to crazy laughter. He brews up hooch from torpedo fuel and paint thinners. Shown Rorschach blots, he says he sees only genitalia. Asked by a service psychiatrist about a crying fit, he mumbles about it being nostalgia caused by reading a letter from a girl he used to know.
In 1950, in trouble, blind drunk, he stows away on a big pleasure- boat where a party is going on. Its commander is The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic figure who describes himself absurdly as a "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher".
Gradually, we realise Master is a cult leader, not dissimilar from the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard. Having created a movement called The Cause, he spouts nonsense about reincarnation and practises a mish-mash of therapies, called "processing", based on endlessly repeated questioning, hypnosis and past life regression.
Master puts Freddie through a session, which turns into an intense encounter for all the spuriousness of the method. Although he calls Freddie a scoundrel, Master adopts him as a protege and guinea pig, to the dismay of his controlling wife (Amy Adams) and family. Master loves Freddie's moonshine too.
The remainder of the film follows their improbable relationship, both needing the other, neither surrendering or changing. In one powerful scene, they are in adjacent prison cells (almost a split- screen effect), Master for financial fraud, Freddie for having assaulted the policemen who came to arrest Master. Freddie rages, smashing up the fittings.
"Your fear of capture and imprisonment Continued on Page 44
Continued from Page 43 is an implant from millions of years ago," Master serenely tells him. "This is not you, you are asleep."
"Shut the fuck up," shouts Freddie, "you're making this shit up!" "I give you facts," says Master. "Fuck you! Fuck you!" "I am the only one that likes you," Master tells him, always ready with the words that will get to people. This pair are deeply connected, whether they like it or not. …