There are a lot of good reasons to see “The Master,” but none of them have to do with diversion or entertainment. It’s a strong art experience that folds acting, cinematography, and music together skillfully to explore human phenomena as only good film can.
The anti-hero (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mental casualty of World War II who drinks anything with alcohol content, including paint thinner, to quell his demons. As many do after such trauma, he falls into a cult. One might get very interested in this particular cult because of its close association with Scientology, a religion founded by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard during the same postwar period. But there are much broader applications. The Master tells his disciple, “You go out and find a way to live without serving some master, then come back and tell the rest of us!” In his view, in other words, all of us are fatally attracted to supernatural beliefs and dominating personalities. Is it so?
In the movie, almost all the characters cling to the cult and their Master. They turn over their money, their energy, their time and any semblance of free will, happily, to the Master. The few who don’t are likely to get beaten up. Is it all that exceptional? Aren’t all Americans supposed to be churchgoers? Aren’t some people rioting across the world because they think their Prophet is maligned in a video? Doesn’t a candidate for president of the United States possibly wear sacred underwear and believe that he will get his own planet sometime after his death? Don’t many union meetings and others begin with a spoken prayer to some amorphous alien being?
The movie makes it clear that the idea of cults and religion, whether “artificial” or old-time, needs investigating and serious thought. In that way, director Anderson does us a service.
Another good reason to see “The Master” is for the against-type acting. Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t play a sensitive hero, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the title role, doesn’t play a flabby loser. Best of all, Amy Adams doesn’t play Little Miss Bright and Gay! All of them have unusual and extremely challenging roles that are brilliantly done. The visuals and the music, most of which is original stuff from Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, combine into a totally engrossing experience worth seeing more than once, just to reflect on how the director put it all together.
“The Master” is a deep and enlightening experience, not a fun one.
Written, directed, and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons
Rated R, 137 min.