Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Joaquin Phoenix as the skanky ex-WWII sailor, Freddie, who falls under the sway of The Master played by Philip Seymour Hoffman has a broken-backed posture that is ape-like, consistent throughout the film. His arms curve down, into his unhealthily skinny, strange parenthesis of a body, like a starved gorilla's, ready to break someone's skull—if they say or do anything that runs counter to Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, a Hemingway-cum-L. Ron Hubbard amalgam with all the animal charisma, robustness and pseudo-sagacity of those epic characters. Is his Master at peace with such overreach? Dodd waggishly calls Freddie a "naughty boy" after such explosive incidents of lethal enforcement: Here is his useful tool for control of others.

Dodd's "processing" of the Id that is Freddie is not a cost-free transactional process. Freddie's mother is institutionalized. His sexual hunger is about debasement, not lust. He is a composite of a feral wild animal.

The unhinged, barely civilized Freddie meets the happily idolized Dodd as a stowaway in the latter's boat as it rounds from San Francisco through the Panama Canal, up to NYC. It is the 50's. Hoffman cannily corners the near-savage bootlegger Freddie for his own purposes, in a dysfunctional dynamic that manages not quite to quell the furtive Freddie of his internal demons and bad parentage. Freddie does not even require direction from the force-field puppeteer, Dodd: He easily slips out and kills those who question the conman cult-meister of The Cause, a shoo-in for takeover -ologies like Scientology.

The film has ravishing setpiece after setpiece befitting the accomplished director of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), MAGNOLIA (1999)—which shares this film's excoriation of strata of perhaps-corrupt society, and the grim hematology of THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007). Here, though the performances by the principles, including a primly demonic Amy Adams as Dodd's steely controlling, artificially beatific wife, Peggy, we are at a loss as to why all this energy and fury are expended for a topic that, distanced by some 60-odd years, means less to us than his prior cinematic subject matter did. Other than the news wagged by the Cruise shocker divorce initiated by a fed-up Katie Holmes, what meaning does the film convey, except to beware of Elmer Gantry-esque charlatans selling snake-oil "cures" for personality defects? In a parallel that may escape notice, Freddie has concocted a powerful alcoholic quaff that he sells to the eager unsuspecting. Like highly bruited China's exported foods adulterated with sweet melamine that go undetected until a baby or pet somewhere dies, Freddie makes his power likker using 'sweet' but toxic derivatives that pack a bigger punch, shall we say, than the average mini-umbrella cocktail.

There are anguished scenes involving de-programming effects that are treated the way Roman audiences at unfair gladiator vs. hungry lion spectacles were treated, or like the inane wealthy viewers of THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) were treated: These are just tickle your fancy entertainments, although we know, if we have an iota of decency, they are immoral and a crusty abuse of decency. There is a 'dream' sequence involving an entirely unnecessary signing Dodd, complete with naked ladies and fully clothed men. It serves no purpose other than as a fevered interlude for prurient rise in testosterone. Or whatever. I found it utterly unredeemed by anything preceding or following it. It could as easily have been excised and the film lose nothing.

The verbal and acting hijinks on screen immobilize the audience, but no good comes of it. You watch with queasy disgust, find yourself reacting with distaste and a push-pull desire to leave, while wanting a satisfactory resolution. Which never arrives.

Though MASTER is up for several European awards, chiefly for the two protagonists going at each other with such implacable force and verbal weapons, you leave your seat angry, uneasy, unsatisfied and perturbed. This is not to say that the filming itself does not capture the time it deals with. There are striking tableaux every few minutes. The jail sequence between Freddie, crashing his toilet out of rage, juxtaposed against the calm, almost professorial Dodd, standing with elbow crooked against the upper bunk of his neighboring cell, is a classic-to-be. But let Europe choose its poison: This is a masterfully filmed ugly film that does not teach us anything we did not already know, nor provide us with an elevating entertainment. It's one reason one avoids horror films—we know what there is coming, and if gore is not your chosen menu du jour, you steer clear.

Reactions range from robotic admiration for the many technical proficiencies, the cinephile's gotta see it, to the view that the protagonists are busy chewing the scenery and the movie as a whole is a visual feast but a mess.

To the extent that audiences buy in to this feast of sordid and nasty, we need worry about the direction of the population. TV is free, relatively speaking. To pay to see this, dragged into this muckish spectacle, is a judgment one must anguish over. The inkling of good the film might supply is the wakening of millions to the dangers posed by demonic and ungloved movements (and 'leaders') like Scientology, which historically stop at nothing to silence their detractors.

Is Anderson subtly signaling that we are blindly following the lemming example of a latter-day Pied Piper? Or is this just a movie?


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