Friday, October 12, 2012

The Master

There's a scene, somewhere near the beginning of the end of The Master, in which the movie tells its viewers--shouts at us, really--that Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, is a charlatan. That his methods are bullshit, and he's not even competent enough to keep his own bullshit straight.

It's the book release scene. Dodd is going to give a speech, but beforehand he sits alone in a dark room, worried. Then he gives the speech. It's pretty bad. Afterwards we hear from a few of Dodd's true believers, who think that the new book sucks. Laura Dern even calls him out face to face. Through it all Dodd seems detached, almost disinterested.

As I watched this, I wondered: why? Why is Dodd suddenly incompetent? The whole thing left me unsatisfied, and colored my response to the rest of the movie.

When the movie was over I thought back to the scene, the source of my discontent. I felt that the beginning and end of the movie managed that strange alchemy that movies manage sometimes, in which scenes and images blend into some coherent artistic whole. But the middle, and that book release scene, well, that felt different. It felt petty, and strange.

I read a bunch of reviews, and agreed with them all, good or bad. The good reviews said that The Master was a great work of art. I agree with that. It is a special film. The bad reviews said that The Master has an incoherent plot. I agreed with that, too.

My major problem with the film related to Dodd's character, though. In the first half of the first he possesses charm, charisma, conviction, and intelligence. All of sudden, around that book party scene, he loses all of it. It's just gone. This rubbed me the wrong way.

Most of the rest of the movie works for me, but I left feeling that the opportunity to really explore the nature of cult and the power of a cult leader had been squandered.

P.S.: Would The Master have been better if it had been 2.5 hours of Joaquin Phoenix's face? I think so. His face is unbelievable.

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