The Master: Cults, False Cures, and Representing (But Being Legally Distinct From) Scientology   Leave a comment

[Note: Posted slightly late on account of a minor transportation failure.]

“Homer Simpson, your family will be housed here for the first one-hundred-thousand years.  Then something might open up in a double.” – Movementarian

Top Line: The Master is a pretty good movie.  It is well acted and written, features several excellent scenes, has gorgeous cinematography, and all of that jazz.  However, like most big time Oscar bait, it’s good in mostly forgettable ways, and it certainly didn’t need to be well north of two hours long.

Who (probably) should see this movie: Fans of middle-brow, Oscar bait type films, fans of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and people who want to snicker at Scientology.

Who (probably) should not see this movie: People who don’t like ponderous Oscar bait type films, the easily distracted, and anyone who is hoping to see a lot of Laura Dern.

Box Score:

Runtime:2h:17m – And it could’ve been much less than that without losing anything the least bit important.

Actual Start Time: Showtime+14 Minutes

MPAA:Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language

There is some sex (with a dash of incest), and there are three short scenes with bare breasts a plenty, but the language is pretty tame unless you count Philip Seymour Hoffman using a fifty cent word every time a ten cent one would do.

Should Be Rated: PG-16

Three Stars:

  1. Joaquin Phoenix – Neurotic, Slightly Insane WWII Veteran:
    The well acted Torgo to Hoffman’s “Master”.  Manages to really pull off some scenes that could’ve easily become very goofy otherwise.
  2. Amy Adams – Hoffman’s Cult Leader Daughter:
    Is entertainingly single minded in her devotion to the cult/religion her father heads.
  3. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Not Lafayette Ronald Hubbard:
    Is clearly having a great time as the charming, possibly self deluded con-man.
Need to See In Theater (Baseline: 2):

  • + 1 Is glowingly reviewed Oscar bait, and therefore will be popping up in other media and discussions long before it gets to home video.
  • -1 Feels longer than it is, so there are definitely a couple of places where a pause button would’ve been handy.

Final Score: 2

Need to See Eventually (Baseline: 5):

  • +1 The great performance from Joaquin Phoenix is worth seeing.
  • +1 Philip Seymour Hoffman is a lot of fun as well.
  • -1 Is a bit of a slog in places, especially toward the end.
  • -1 See Bechdel, below.

Final Score: 5

Bechdel (Baseline: 5):

  • +1 Amy Adams has some great scenes in a sleek but layered part.
  • -1 Laura Dern is barely in the movie.
  • -2 Doesn’t even sniff a passing score as there are basically no scenes without Hoffman or Phoenix.

Final Score: 3

IMDb Sez:


  • Paul Thomas Anderson:
    Famous director of good to excellent mid-budget movies, most famously including Boogie Nights (1997) and There Will Be Blood (2007).


Rotten Tomatoes Sez:

All Critics: 87% Top Critics: 85% Audience: 78%


  • Phoenix works as a portrait photographer, and the makeup, dress, and overall living color look of people we’re more familiar with in static black and white is done extremely well.
  • It is a little tough to buy Hoffman as having fathered Adams.  The two are only seven years apart in age in real life, and don’t look much more than that here.
  • The first scene where Hoffman subjects Phoenix to his “process”, akin to one of those Scientology “Audits”, is maybe the best one in the move in terms of just having two very good actors go back and forth in a tight scene.
  • The only other scene in contention is the handjob scene, which I will let speak for itself.
  • Like in There Will Be Blood, Anderson is fond of long, languid establishing shots and scenes that give all the little historical details time to sink in.
  • Similar to the above, the costume, set and graphics departments did a bang up job creating all those things.  For example, there’s an early scene in one of those old fashioned, incredibly spacious department stores, and the camera just wanders around for a while to really drive home the point that this is a very different time.
  • The movie has roughly as much to do with Scientology as The Social Network has to do with Facebook in that it’s better at painting a backdrop than really getting into the details of how these fascinating and popular things took off.

Bottom Line:

The Master is the exact kind of award hounding drama its trailer makes it look like.  It wears its seriousness as a badge of honor and its dignity on its sleeve so that everyone can see both.  In that capacity, it succeeds wildly.  Unfortunately, it’s also much too long, much too dry, and way too serious to be memorably entertaining.  Five years from now it will likely have faded into that haze of “Oh, I vaguely remember seeing that once.  It was good, wasn’t it?”.

For example, Hoffman gives a fine performance as Not Ron Hubbard, but is never given the opportunity to show us in the audience much more than his followers see of him.  Is he a true believer or is he in on his own con?  If the former, what convinced him?  If the latter, how does he feel about it?  The movie is largely silent on questions like those.

It prefers to show what happens when Phoenix, who been has utterly failed by the medical science of the time, falls into the orbit of Hoffman, a messianic cult leader who refuses to give up on Phoenix when his many feats of bullshit fail to just as surely as Rorschach tests and dream analysis.  There’s nothing wrong with that as a story, but it does leave the movie feeling oddly repetitive and incomplete despite its length and seriousness.  By the end of There Will Be Blood, we knew Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in all his monstrous effectiveness.  By the end of The Master, neither Phoenix nor Hoffman seem to have changed much, and we in the audience don’t really know anything more about them than we did at the opening.

It’s a well done movie, and if you’re in the right mood it’s very much worth seeing.  But it isn’t something so epic and/or spectacular that it demands attention.

Movies Deemed Commercially and Demographically Similar Enough to Merit Trailers Before The Master:

Les Miserables – It’s a big budget Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation.  You’re either going to love it, or not care about it in the least.

Zero Dark Thirty – One presumes this movie would do better business if Obama gets re-elected than if he doesn’t, but who knows?

The Impossible – The 2004 tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people, most of them poor and brown, told through a heartwarming story of a family of prosperous white people.  The trailer actually contains title screens that read, “Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit”.  Water and wave shoaling are, presumably, excepted.

Anna Karenina – It’s a big budget Victorian era costume piece filled to capacity with British actors.  Like Les Miserables, you’re likely either going to love it or not care at all.

Killing Them Softly – Still looks above average for a low rent gangster movie.

Silver Linings Playbook – I, for one, am sick and tired of the mentally ill being stereotyped as Philadelphia Eagles fans.

WARNING: The comments section is a spoiler friendly zone.  By reading this with your inner monologue, you have waved any right to bitch about spoilers in perpetuity throughout the universe.

Posted September 21, 2012 by Charlie Sweatpants in Box Score Cinema, The Simpsons

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