The movie “The Master” is a serious film that takes itself too seriously. It is a bit repetitive in trying to make its point.

The beginning starts out promisingly, creatively, by zooming in on Joachin Phoenix’s character Freddie humping a sand-shaped figure of a girl, then shows him going off toward the ocean to masturbate. If the point of the scene was to make the audience uncomfortable, “The Master” certainly succeeded on that account.

Not only is it a bizarre start, Freddie slurs his words to the degree that Phoenix is barely understandable. I was reminded of the development of Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski’s, The Method, whereby the actor works to inhabit the mind of the character, a rigorous endeavor requiring dedication, discipline, and careful artistic self-analysis, and the specific words spoken take a backseat to the authentic display of the character. Marlon Brando made this method famous in the U.S., but this style of acting should be used sparingly in that it threatens to alienate the audience from relating to the main character. Both Joachin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are masterful in their ability to fully realize their characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix or Hoffman were nominated for an Oscar. Hoffman won the Academy Award for best actor in 2006 for the film “Capote,” so it seems it might be Joachin Phoenix’s turn, especially after his work as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” Unfortunately, “The Master” drags, and isn’t clear in the point it is trying to make. The screenplay doesn’t support the efforts of the actors.

I did, however, find myself rooting for Freddie as he gets out of the armed services and seeks to re-acclimate himself to living in society, not altogether successfully. We don’t want him to screw up his work as a photographer, but we know that things are likely to go dramatically wrong before they are righted again. Mental illness in film has been a popular topic lately, and mixed with alcoholism it makes for a potent, powerful combination of combustible characters likely to come apart, creating more tension to drive the story. Freddie makes a nearly lethal homemade brew that includes paint thinner, and his drink actually kills someone. When my dad was in the navy, an alcoholic Native American he worked with kept drinking aftershave until he dropped the concoction on the floor, then he started pounding back aviation alcohol, causing his premature death. In this respect, I could understand the desperation of the characters seeking a way out of their skin.

The two main characters meet at sea as Freddie sneaks aboard a yacht where he passes out and when he wakes up he meets Lancaster Dodd. Dodd names himself the head of a cult religion termed “The Cause,” and the master collects followers with Freddie leading the way. The movie makes subtle parallels to Scientology in its method of recruiting members.

Freddie is malleable and moldable and Lancaster Dodd makes him into his henchman. He lies to Freddie, saying, “I’m the only one that likes you.” The master is not as obvious in his emotional outbursts, but he is a dangerous man when his anger erupts, especially if followers or lay people question his approach to religion. He is scariest in his quiet moments. The question we are left to ponder is: Will Freddie leave behind his violent ways behind to carve out a decent life for himself. The audience must decide whether people can actually rise above their circumstances to make a new reality for themselves?

Critics are bound to rally around this slow moving film for its unusual subject matter and great acting, but it dragged painfully. Take a pass unless you really want to predict the Academy Awards.

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