Film Review: “The Master”

“The Master” is actually two films in one. The first theme is a cosmetic examination of a pseudo-religious cult reputed in the media to be Scientology. Actually, “The Master” is much more like “est” from the 70s, a charismatic cult similar to Scientology, headed by the monolithic presence of Werner Erhard.  Rather than living a life enmeshed by their history, “est” trainees were offered escape from the shackles of their past by an endless Socratic method.  This process broke down inhibitions (and common sense) similar to a pastel Marine boot camp, bringing the follower to a state of true belief and one-ness with their ethos.

The second theme chronicles the track from sociopath to cult acolyte, a theme that has been worked heavily in the past, beginning with “The True Believer” (Eric Hoffer, 1951) which brilliantly described the personality type attracted to cults:

“Mass movements glorify the past and devalue the present, appealing to frustrated people who are dissatisfied with their current state, but are capable of a strong belief in the future. As well, mass movements appeal to people who want to escape a flawed self by creating an imaginary self and joining a collective whole. Some categories of people who may be attracted to mass movements include poor people, misfits, former soldiers, and people who feel thwarted in their endeavors”.

This revelation was thereafter followed by the film “Pressure Point” (1962), in which underrated singer/actor Bobby Darin chillingly defined the personality of  “The Master” protagonist Freddie Quest in similar circumstances. The road to satisfaction and self-esteem lies in associating with the kind of power that derives from a charismatic leader.

Despite a potentially interesting exploration, “The Master” is deeply flawed and unsatisfying on almost every level. Its treatment of the sociology of sociopathy is shallow and diluted with free-form contrived drama.  The primary characters emote repetitively and almost experimentally, enhanced by extreme facial close-ups like a two and a half hour method-acting lesson in Lee Strasburg’s studio.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman works hard to carve out the cult’s charismatic maximum leader but in the end only explores the width of the role, not the depth. Joaquin Phoenix gets the overacting award of the year, and on some level I suspect he IS Freddie Quest in real life.  His exploration of the role is doing what comes naturally as he did in the impeccably weird “I’m still here” (2012).

It was a valiant effort but ended up a shell full of tedious melodrama that went nowhere and allowed the characters to progress to the same fate had no one ever observed them.

Best part: Cinematography was excellent.

Least best part: Gratuitous sex scenes that contributed nothing.

Quick aside quip:  The motorcycle run by Freddie in the flats was a 1950 single cylinder Norton 500T, a British bike quite desired by collectors. The Norton motorcycle company (along with Triumph and BSA) folded in the 70s after it was outclassed by cheaper, better-built Japanese bikes of the early 70s.

This is a very mediocre film bordering on tedious.  Not recommended to pay full freight to see it. If you like the actors, wait till it comes out on HBO.

I give it 3 of 5 smirks of “He’s making it up as he goes along”, and that’s a gift to Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

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