After the famous disaster suffered by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry on their charge at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, observer French Marshall Pierre Bosquet famously said, “It is magnificent, but it is not war.”

I remembered that this week as I screened Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” now playing to big houses at Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema. I saw it alone of course, without the whispers of the rapt and mesmerized comments of the media chattering class, and fell asleep on several occasions.

I agree with the hundreds of famous critics across the media that Anderson (“There Will be Blood”) is a master of film, a great American director and story teller. It is being hailed by most as “outstanding,” “brilliant.” That it will garner Oscar nominations and probably wins, there is no doubt. Witness the packed houses at the RRS theater.

I agree that Mihai Malaimare’s camera work was brilliant: the oceans and skies, the beaches of the Pacific, and certainly Jonny Greenwood’s music was wonderful.

Each scene was beautifully lit, and all the players were magnificent, including Jesse Plemons as Val Dodd, the Master’s son, and the doubting Thomas of the disciples as he whispered, “He’s making it all up as he goes along … you don’t see that?” Yes, all were magnificent. I walked out of the theater thinking I had seen a very good movie. It was indeed magnificent … but not a great movie.

What did we see? We saw a tale of two deeply disturbed men, Dodd, who heads a national cult, a bloviating behemoth, a descendant of Eve’s serpent in summer linens, and Freddie, a misled wounded creature who comes to worship him and becomes his pit bull.

In Anderson’s big movie, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic snake oil salesmen writ large, loosely based, we’re told, on what we know of L. Ron Hubbard, the great salesman of Scientology. Hoffman is always bigger than life, and the character of Dodd demands it. Dodd is a strutting, billowing sail full of the great gusts of wind, that he twists into hypnotic phrases that hold his followers close to his feet, feet that begin to smell of cheap clay. Hoffman is, as always, a master at his craft, even when one suspects that he has no idea where it’s all going.

And then there is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie, a deeply disturbed, broken piece of God’s pottery. Freddie is an alcoholic who concocts his own label from coal oil, cough medicine and gin. He is a sexually twisted liar and thief, and Phoenix breathes dark poison life into him.

We meet Freddie as a World War II sailor, who is traumatized by the horror of war we never witness. We watch him on a beach in the Pacific, making love to a sand woman built by his shipmates, and then as he masturbates in the surf.

We watch Freddie stumble through civilian life as a department store photographer who accosts his subjects, as a field hand who poisons a fellow worker with his toxic brew of home-made booze. Freddie is a walking horror film with a twisted body and mind, a dangerous loser who is attracted to Dodd and sees in him a father figure with shadings of homoeroticism. In one final scene, Freddie weeps as Dodd sits across from him and sings the entire lyrics of “I’d Like To Get You On a Slow Boat to China.”

No one could play this better than Phoenix, who is a master of the twisted form and haunted mind. He fashions a crab-like walk with hands on hip, neck craned to one side. Dodd brings Freddie into his family, the way he would rescue a crippled animal, and where he stands out like a catfish in a Koi pond.

Here in Dodd’s home, we meet his married daughter who gropes our Freddie at a “session,” and Dodd’s wife played by Amy Adams. Adams is always engaging, even when she’s miscast as she is here.

Adams, as Mrs. Dodd, sits quietly throughout the movie, at her husband’s side, watching and listening and then later, whispering advice in his drunken ear as she masturbates him.

We wonder, is this Lady MacBeth? Is she the real voice of the cult and our Dodd simply the dummy on her lap? Amy’s sweetness keeps that from becoming too obvious. Barbara Stanwyck would have inked it. Perhaps I’m wrong.

“The Master” is garnering lavish praise and will fill the second row at the Oscars. It’s magnificent, but it’s not great. It’s just an interesting, often courageous and daring movie, and that’s an anomaly in this movie world of men who dress up like spiders and bats.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: