I really should have hated The Master.
And yet, I couldn't help but like it. It's so wildly, brazenly absurd that I found myself warming to it more and more. It's never boring, and frequently howl-out-loud funny. Maybe it just suited the mood I was in on a cold and rainy Thursday in Oxford, when I was more ready to be entertained than I thought.The plot is an unfocussed mess. Most of the characters are either ciphers or caricatures. The film doesn't have an ending. It gets to 2 hours and 23 minutes and finishes. It's overblown, over-acted, pretentious and so far up its own backside that it can lick its own tonsils. It should have driven me into a boiling rage.
The film is largely told through the cracked warped lens of Freddie Quell, a WW2 veteran who leaves the service with a very skewed view of the world. He's sex-obsessed, and a highly creative alcoholic given to creating cocktails out of dark-room chemicals and swilling mouthwash out of bathroom cabinets. He's an extraordinary creation, and my main reason for loving this film. Quell is damaged goods, one side of his face drooping as if from a stroke. He looks as if he's wearing his clothes backwards, and is easily sparked to a thrashing, incoherent rage. Joaquin Phoenix plays him like a broken cockerel, strutting with a limp and a sneer, always at an uncomfortable angle to the world around him.
Quell hooks up with a group that are even stranger than him: a curious pseudo-scientific cult called The Cause. The film-makers have been careful to play down the parallels to Scientology, but it's pretty obvious what The Cause and its charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd are supposed to represent.
Dodd is clearly a charlatan and a buffoon, blustering his way into gullible rich old women's lives, taking over their houses and bilking them out of large amounts of cash. You wonder how anyone ever falls for his shell game–although Dodd has charm and smooth talk to spare, his high talk and horsefeathers are full of holes. As the film goes on, it becomes clearer still that he's not even the brains of the operation. His wife, played with a doe-eyed innocence that sharpens to steely resolve by Amy Adams, is great here, balancing Philip Seymour Hoffman's volume with a quiet sense of almost banal evil. The moment when Peggy keeps Dodd in line with a briskly-administered handjob speaks volumes about the relationship between the two, and how the balance of power within the Cause is distributed.
But it's the relationship between Dodd and Quell that forms the central mass around which the film spins. It's something akin to love, a lot like addiction (Dodd becomes as partial to the taste of photographic chemicals as Quell), and frequently subject to Freddie's paranoid delusions. He imagines Dodd calling him to England with a phone call in a deserted cinema auditorium, or capering around a gathering of the faithful where all the women gradually lose their clothes. You start to wonder just how much of the film is simply going on in Freddie's head. Would Dodd really serenade him with a tearful rendition of “Slow Boat To China” before letting him go forever? You honestly start to doubt everything you're seeing. In the end, the film takes on the aspect of a fever dream, a hazy hallucination shot through with bizarre tight-focus choices and saturated colours.
Every time you think you've got a handle on The Master, it swerves on you, throwing in another fist fight, a moment of high melodrama, an uncomfortable sex scene. You're left giddy, slightly high, off-balance, as if you've been slipped one of Quell's dark-room creations. The acting is on the high end of scenery-chewing, but it's carried out by actors that know how to walk that tightrope without looking absurd. It's not as if The Master isn't absurd, because it's crazy as a crackhouse rat. Paul Thomas Anderson's films are always deliriously weird, but this beats the frog storms and the giant prosthetic penis and the milkshakes by a nautical mile. This is no incisive assault on the birth of Scientology. Instead, it's a whacked-out treatise on the nature of faith, family and friendship, with a central character that learns nothing and is all the stronger for it.
As I left the cinema, two old Oxford dowagers offered up a plummy critique: “My dear, I have to say I found half of it completely incomprehensible.” So did I. But I didn't see that as a bad thing.