I appreciate much of what writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has to offer. The movie looks terrific, and features two of the year’s best performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I can recommend the film based on those factors alone.
And, yet, I can’t call The Master one of the year’s best films. I surprise myself as I type this because I count Anderson’s Magnolia and There Will Be Blood as two of the best films in cinematic history. Perhaps Mr. Anderson is a victim of my super high expectations. I just don’t think he’s delivered the goods with The Master on a level with his past films (which also include Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love).
Phoenix plays Freddie, a troubled World War II vet who returns from a stint with the Navy a little messed up in the head. He’s having trouble finding his place in the world, and he’s constantly swigging potentially lethal alcohol drinks he makes out of anything he can find in the medicine cabinet or tool shed. He’s prone to major mood swings and violence. His relationships and jobs aren’t working out, and his drinking is getting him into a lot of trouble.
He winds up a stowaway on a luxury yacht where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), leader of The Cause, a cult-like movement with more than a few similarities to Scientology. Dodd takes an immediate liking to Freddie and his crazy alcoholic concoctions. He invites him to stay with his family, which includes wife Peggy (Amy Adams).
There’s a great tension to the scenes where Freddie is “processed” by Dodd, asked a series of intense questions where he’s not allowed to blink, or forced to walk back and forth in a room and declare what comes to his mind when doing something as simple as touching a window. Phoenix and Hoffman take these scenes into the stratosphere.
Where the film falters is in a number of scenes that feel, dare I say, badly directed by one of our best directors. There’s a staginess and artificiality to some of the scenes that makes them stilted. I especially disliked many of the moments featuring Adams, whose character feels shoehorned into the movie. Her moments don’t flow with the film.
I also got a sense of déjà vu with some of the film, as if it were a There Will Be Blood retread in spots. I think this is due in part to the soundtrack from Jonny Greenwood, who also did the music for Blood. It has the same percussive sounds as the prior score, which had me thinking Daniel Day Lewis could show up at any minute and cave in the side of Phoenix’s head with a bowling pin.
Phoenix, his face gnarled with anguish, makes an impressive return to narrative filmmaking after the crazy experiment that was I’m Not There. While The Master falters from time to time, he never does, and I fully expect him to be in Oscar contention. He has a moment in a prison cell that shows he’s an actor who will throw his entire being into a performance.
As for Hoffman, he’s in typical genius mode, portraying Dodd as a super intelligent yet highly unstable man. Freddie and Dodd share a tendency to, let’s say, overreact, and the two actors portray this with scary ferocity. However, the usually reliable Adams seems adrift in this movie.
See the film for Phoenix and Hoffman. They are epic, and it’s too bad the film itself doesn’t’ go deep enough with its narrative. The Master is a relationship movie, and little more. Those looking for a stinging indictment of organized religion and, more specifically, Scientology, are bound to be disappointed. Those looking for a piece of work comparable to Anderson’s best will be crushed.