The Master

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

by Simon Fazey

Remember how tough WWII was? And how we all came back damaged alcoholics searching for ourselves as we drifted through America? Then ended up in the self help cults of the 1950’s, with there charismatic yet sinister leaders. Writer, Director P.T Anderson’s latest, The Master, takes us back to that time.

It tells the sparse story of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged veteran who finds himself in the thrall of the self help movement ‘The Cause’ and its charming leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

The film has many problems: at the screening this was comically foreshadowed as the much heralded 70mm version we were scheduled to watch broke down after 12 minutes. It felt like everyone working on this film was trying to do something memorable and worthy and just like the 70mmm it just did not happen.

The performances are intense. You can really see the effort that Phoenix is putting into capturing the emotional pain of his character as he goes through the strange therapy of ‘The Cause’. It is really distracting how hard he is screwing his face up.

Hoffman on the other hand carries Dodd’s self importance well, though there is a mismatch between these to central performances which need to carry the film; it is like Phoenix and Hoffman prepared separately and met on set for the first time. There is no sense of the paternal closeness of the characters, no chemistry. This is a fatal flaw.

Another problem is that none of the central characters are likeable. It is obvious that the film wants to be grown up and sophisticated, but in the absence of story and character development, there needs to be a reason to care about someone and there is not one.

Much of the pre-publicity made reference to film’s story’s similarities to Scientology, but this is a disappointment. L Ron Hubbard and the church he founded were an influence on Anderson; ‘The Cause’ is very similar to Dianetics and the cleansing that Freddie undergoes is a lot like the auditing in Scientology. However The Master is more of a photograph from the early days of Scientology, it does not capture the growth of that religion. Scientology’s story is way more weird and compelling.

Apart from the cinematography which even in digital did capture the time of The Master beautifully, every detail in this film annoys; Jonny Greenwood’s score seems to be used to pad the dull and quiet moment and its ubiquity, because there is a lot of dull and quiet, really grates. Where are the women in this world? The is plenty of casual female nudity, but not much by way of female characters; Amy Adams plays Dodd’s wife and Laura Dern a follower of ‘The Cause’ and both of their talents are wasted here. The cult scenes are full of people laughing for no reason, characters break into song, there is a pacing up and down montage, random flash backs a go-go, motor biking in the dessert for no reason, beach masturbation, the list of annoyances goes on.

By the end of film the audience can really relate to the confusion and angst of Freddie, just not in the way that Anderson perhaps intended. 


Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER will open on November 2nd exclusively at London’s Odeon West End, allowing audiences the rare opportunity to see the film in 70mm, as Anderson intended, for two weeks before it widens across London and the rest of the UK on November 16th.

Leave a Reply