It’s tremendously challenging to walk into The Master without huge expectations. It’s the first movie in five years from Paul Thomas Anderson, a man who it’s not outrageous to consider the greatest current filmmaker the world has to offer. That this, his sixth film, has been known for years to be a take on the creation of Scientology only made the film hotter and more desired by film nerds.
But The Master doesn’t exactly live up to either of these anticipations. For one, while Scientology and its origins clearly inspired the story, the film never pretends to do anything more than borrow a few basic character details and settings. But more interestingly, this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film that, much like There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love before it, doesn’t feel like a Paul Thomas Anderson film as we have come to know them. Not without plenty of touches that harken back to Anderson’s established sense of very subtle humor and visual dominance, The Master has redefined the filmmaker.
The Master is an epic of Kubrickian proportions shot in 70mm. It takes the story of a soldier whose time after his service manages to outshine any time over seas. It’s less about the journey and more about indecision.
The director isn’t the only one who has redefined himself with the film. Lead player Joaquin Phoenix, whose last role ignited the ire of everyone, has created something whole and disturbing. He plays Freddie, a man that once released from the Navy, wanders aimlessly and pisses off everyone without meaning to. Phoenix warps and contorts his posture for the role, and Mihai Malaimare’s photography darkens every unnatural roll of skin on his face.
To watch his performance is to watch a dying dog search for scraps. But this isn’t a Sarah McLachlan commercial – Phoenix’s animal of a performance is unceasingly fascinating to watch. Every close-up invites study.
Freddie keeps running in no particular direction until he wakes up, hungover, on the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man so theatrically convincing, he doesn’t need to make sense to enchant his audience. Hoffman’s performance has enough weight to convince the blank faces that look to him for advice, and go on to drop their beliefs so that they can study his book proposing a new order to the universe. Hoffman never attempts to meet Phoenix’s insanity, but the actor we’ve all known to expect great things from gives a razor sharp turn that sticks out as one of his best.
This may be a long-awaited follow-up from one of cineastes’ favorite directors, but The Master belongs to Hoffman and Phoenix. Dodd is a man who thrives off the devotion of others, and Freddie is a man in desperate need of someone like Dodd to straighten out his life. The film swarms around the two polar opposites, observing where they are compatable and where they aren’t for your observance. The two actors function as figureheads without ever looking like they’re doing anything at all.
(It’s worth noting that Amy Adams, though much less present, more than holds her own as Dodd’s wife.)
But Anderson isn’t slouching on his duties, either. His script gives you all of the information you need and, while it’s hard to not be frustrated on some level by an abrupt ending, we’ve already been given all we need to know about his characters. That we’re frustrated at all is just proof that he told his story correctly.
Besides, Anderson has already given us a blissfully opaque collection of scenes to obsess over, looking for more typical plot points that aren’t needed but fun to put together on our own. Whatever The Master is, it’s not obvious about it, but that’s sort of what makes it so fascinating.
For a slightly different take, check out Cap’n Carrot’s review here