Aubin cinema, 23 November 2012
Teaser trailer from here.
A promising idea derailed by choosing to focus on the wrong lead character.
"If you can go through life without serving a master, any master, then come back and tell us about it, because you'd be the first person in history to discover how," says the master of the film's title, a US cult leader bearing a resemblance to the founder of scientology (here called The Cause). He is speaking to his difficult disciple Freddie, and it is mostly through Freddie's experiences that we approach the cult.
This is an ambitious film, exploring both the nature of cult and of leadership, or perhaps the ubiquity of master/slave relationships.
Clearly a central challenge must have been the casting of the master himself, and Philip Seymour Hoffman conveys the right amount of self-belief, furious when contradicted, charming when not. It's a charismatic portrayal, though I was unfavourably reminded of his performance in The Talented Mr Ripley, in which his character effortlessly conveyed the charm and self-confidence that can come with inherited wealth.
The most interesting parts of the story happen tangentially, and involve the master's apparently inexorable rise.
We first see him commanding a yacht. It emerges he has been loaned this by rich socialite acolytes. We don't see these again, but at a later point he is arrested and subsequently fined heavily for damaging the yacht and defrauding these friends. He is unfazed, and this is utterly convincing, as is the reference to past wives hounding him.
And despite his mysterious interest in Freddie, long after everyone else has given him up, he issues an ultimatum in their final scene: serve me or become my mortal enemy in a future life.
Such uncompromising self-aggrandizement, when spinning a vast fantasy, can be compelling, though perhaps more beneficial in creatives than in politicians or faith leaders.
These are not comparisons developed, or even suggested, in this film. Rather, it is part of the tradition of examining confidence tricksters or charlatans, for it is clear that The Cause is founded on hypnotic suggestion and paranoid science fiction.
It would be interesting to wonder what circumstances permit the success of one charlatan over another. Is there something about the society? It shocked me when we see The Cause opening a massive school in the UK. I'm sure part of my response was chauvanistic, but partly it was because this particular cult seemed peculiarly keyed to US culture; not that a similar cult mightn't work in the UK, but that it would probably need a different set of crazy tenets.
The film is silent about this wider cultural context, and this is a symptom of its biggest flaw. By choosing to centre the narrative on the shell-shocked malcontent Freddie, we necessarily lose wider contexts.
The Freddie focus has a more serious problem. It licenses the kind of showy 'from the outside' performance that mars many films aiming at Oscars. Joaquin Phoenix gives us a lip curling, inarticulately savage, shuffling, oversexed performance of such ugliness that it is amazing Freddie has even the modest success with women he is shown to enjoy.
This walking parade of tics capsizes the film. Paul Thomas Anderson both wrote and directed Freddie, so he must take the blame for ruining his own film.