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ROBWRITE’S DOUBLE FEATURE MOVIE REVIEW:The Master/Lawless
Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "the Master"
Tom Hardy in "Lawless"
Two new theatrical films reviewed…
THE MASTER (2.5 stars out of 5)
The Master is a film about a charismatic con artist who manipulates people into believing that his meaningless dog-and-pony-show is something brilliant. You may feel the same way about director Paul Thomas Anderson after seeing this disappointing and overblown melodrama.
Anderson has only directed two films in the last 10 years. There Will Be Blood (2007) and this movie. Admittedly, There Will Be Blood was a good film, but sadly, Anderson couldn’t follow it up with something equally good. There has been a lot of hype about this film because it was rumored to be an attack on the church of Scientology with Phillip Seymour Hoffman doing a thinly disguised portrayal of L. Ron Hubbard. Ultimately, however, the ‘cult’ aspects of the film are merely a backdrop to the main story, which is about the bizarre relationship between the two main characters. Protests by Scientologists have brought extra attention to this film but they needn’t have bothered. All they’ve accomplished is to inspire a legion of knee-jerk defenders for the film, who have heaped undeserved praise upon it.
Before going into all the negatives, let’s touch upon the good points. The film is graced with an excellent, powerful performance by the ever-reliable Phillip Seymour Hoffman as cult/church leader Lancaster Dodd, and a wonderful supporting turn by Amy Adams as Dodd’s pregnant wife/main disciple Peggy Dodd. Also, Anderson does a nice, stylish job directing the whole affair. Too bad there’s nothing in his script (he wrote the screenplay) to match his visuals.
And now the bad stuff: The story follows the life of a mentally disturbed ex-serviceman named Freddy Quell (badly overplayed by Joaquin Phoenix) who is traumatized by experiences in the Second War World and is also a heavy drinker—not just of alcohol but of practically anything in liquid form, including torpedo fuel and cleaning products. The beginning of the film takes it’s time introducing us to the repulsive Freddy in several random scenes. We first catch Freddy in mid-masturbation and then we see him dry-humping a woman-shaped figure built out of sand by his fellow sailors on the beach. After the war, Freddy goes through mental evaluation in a VA hospital, and he befuddles his doctor by only seeing woman’s private regions in every Rorschach ink-blot test. (There’s not a lot of depth to Freddy.) It’s hard to tell if this scene was supposed to be funny or not, but it doesn’t come across that way.
After being released from the hospital, Freddy wanders through a series of jobs, none of which last very long. As a department store photographer, he attacks a customer for no apparent reason; and later, as an itinerant farm worker, he poisons a fellow worker by sharing one of his noxious, undrinkable cocktails. Soon after that, while running from some guys who are out to give him the beating he so richly deserves, Freddy stows away aboard the yacht carrying the “writer, philosopher and nuclear scientist” Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), leader of a church/cult known as ‘the Cause’.
Dodd takes a liking to Freddy’s toxic potions of paint thinner, lime juice and Lysol. Also, Dodd sees him as a perfect candidate for brainwashing, so he inducts Freddy into his group, putting him through “processing” (Similar to what Scientology calls “auditing”.) Very quickly, a homo-erotic bond develops between Dodd and Freddy, so Freddy becomes Dodd’s number-one henchman. Freddy gets to go to the Cause parties where all the women—and only the woman—are completely naked. Dodd sings to his flock like a drunken uncle on New Year Eve, while Freddy drools over the nude girls.
When he’s not trying to have sex with all the female members of the flock, Freddy is violently attacking anyone who criticizes Dodd, and even assaults the cops who try to arrest Dodd. Dodd mildly scolds his lackey for this but actually seems to enjoy Freddy’s craziness. Dodd’s wife Peggy (Adams) tries to warn him that Freddy is irredeemable and possibly insane but Dodd doesn’t want to give up his favorite disciple. During the course of the film, Freddy is separated from the cult several times (willingly or unwillingly) and with each reunion, Dodd begins to despair more and more that Freddy is beyond saving.
The biggest problem with The Master is that Freddy is so intensely unlikable and unrepentant that it’s hard to get invested in his story, except to root against him. Joaquin Phoenix gives a rather bizarre and disturbing portrayal of Freddy Quell. He constantly distorts his face into a grotesque mask, squinting one eye while talking out of the side of his mouth and mumbling, like a demented Popeye the Sailor. (He shifts to the opposite side of his face occasionally, just for variety.) Hoffman, on the other hand, is excellent as always, but we never find out much about Dodd, his past or his cult. (The film is not subtle about names—Dodd sounds like “God” and he tries to ‘quell’ Freddy Quell’s rage. No finesse there.)
The film, as a whole, is like the Dodd character himself. On the surface, Dodd comes across as someone very intelligent who has something useful and interesting to say, but underneath all the hype and window-dressing, he is merely a stuffed shirt and a hack with no substance to his words. That’s exactly what the film is. It has a good pedigree of talent and purports to talk about something important, but in reality, it is a shallow intellectual exercise which is—to quote Shakespeare—“full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”.
LAWLESS (3 STARS OUT OF 5)
Hollywood has a long history of romanticizing outlaws, making them seem heroic. The advertisements for this film label the main characters as “Brothers. Outlaws. Heroes.” Director John Hillcoat’s Lawless is one of those counter-intuitive films where the bad guys are the good guys and vice versa. This genre includes Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and the Godfather and others where we sympathize with the criminals instead of the cops. Lawless is not in the same league as those classics, but it tries to capture the same spirit. It doesn’t totally succeed but it’s a good effort.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s book, “The Wettest County in the World”, the film is set during the Great Depression, an era which inspired such classics as the Grapes of Wrath. The location is tiny Franklin County in Virginia where the three Bondurant brothers make a living by bootlegging whisky. Eldest brother Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy, who played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises) is the rugged ringleader of the clan. Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) is the wild middle brother, and Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest of the three, who is eager to prove his worth to his big brothers.
The Bondurant brothers have a nice arrangement with local law enforcement who look the other way when the brothers come to town to sell their product, as long as the brothers bring enough extra for the cops. Things change, however, when a special federal deputy is sent to Franklin County to rein in the busy moonshining trade. Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is as vain as he is corrupt. Rakes is an overdressed, foppish fancy-pants, pretentiously attired in immaculate, expensive clothes. He struts through the county wearing a bowtie, vest and white gloves, with his hair slicked back. He even wears perfume. Strangely, he becomes furious at being called “a nance”. Rakes enjoys inflicting pain and will kill for the slightest provocation. He sets his sights on all the bootleggers of Franklin. He succeeds very well, narrowing the numbers down, until only the Bondurant clan is left standing. The feud between Rakes and the Bondurant brothers becomes increasingly intense and personal.
There are a few romantic subplots here, such as Forest’s growing attraction to newly hired bargirl Maggie (Jessica Chastain), which shows that tough-guy Forest is not as confident in the bedroom as he is elsewhere. Also, young Jack falls in love with the local Preachers not-so-innocent daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska, who starred in Alice in Wonderland), leading to a secret romance.
Jack has a chance encounter with infamous Chicago mob kingpin Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who takes a liking to Jack and becomes his patron. Jack is anxious to make enough money to impress Bertha and also to prove to his brothers that he is a valuable member of the team, so he grabs for the brass ring, using Banner’s influence to increase his own importance. In the style of Michael Corleone, Jack moves up the criminal ladder from junior partner to local Godfather. Forest tries to warn Jack that he’s taking on more than he can handle but it takes an ill-fated encounter with nemesis Rake to make Jack realize that he is not as untouchable as he’d hoped he was. This leads to the inevitable, climactic shoot-em-up finale.
Most of the performances are solid and refreshingly understated, except for Pearce who portrays a ridiculously cartoonish bad guy. LaBeouf takes some time away from the Transformers to give a solid lead performance. The female cast members don’t have much to do or affect the plot in any way. They seem to exist here only because the lack of any women would have been odd, so they were thrust in as generic love interests.
The film and the book are based on a true story, since author Matt Bondurant is the grandson of Jack Bondurant. The story is sufficiently entertaining but it’s nothing special. There are no real memorable scenes and the story comes to a predictable conclusion. It’s an adequate bit of filmmaking and it should keep your attention for One hour and 45 minutes.