War does strange things to men. Auteur Paul Thomas Andersons' first film in nearly five years finds him meditating on two divergent characters navigating post-WWII America with all of the confusion, opportunity and sudden change that era ushered in. In one corner is Philip Seymour Hoffman's burgeoning cult leader Lancaster Dodd. The other is Joaquin Phoenix's sex-obsessed, paint thinner swilling drifter Freddie Quell. Their performances are gripping, and the concept that Man cannot live without serving a master is rich narrative territory for sure, but unfortunately, Anderson's film is more ponderous than revelatory, more intellectually aberrated—to use one of Hoffman's phrases—than emotionally engaging.
I was not among them, but this is the first film in a long time that I can recall watching multiple people walk out and never come back.
If Anderon's last outing, the Kubrick-by-way-of-Citizen Cane oil rush Western There Will Be Blood detailed capitalism's bludgeoning of religious devotion and sacrifice of the family, The Master steps further back to the concept of idol worship and the eternal tension between freedom and control.
Set largely in 1950, Phoenix appears as a man transformed. Rail thin, wrinkled and hunched over, his cheeks are as hollow as his darkened and dangerous eyes. The actor makes for a fascinating malcontent, the definition of ne'er-do-well who is all impulse and recklessness and abandon. Hoffman represents not so much the taming of these traits, but the manipulation and leveraging of them for lusty personal gains like power and devotion and purpose.
While Freddie is depicted and occasionally referred to as an animal in the film Hoffman's Dodd happily plays his would-be master. Hoffman parlays his talented bent for portraying intellectual weasels and wields a mighty and precise smarm punctuated by humorous jolts of defensive vulgarity. Anderson's dark humor is perhaps the film's greatest characteristic and often brings much-needed energy to the film's languid pace. In fact, Phoenix thought The Master was a comedy upon viewing the first cut of the movie.
After a methodical, clockwork Act 1 that introduces us to Freddie's war-blasted psyche while borrowing heavily from John Huston's essential post-war, post-traumatic stress disorder documentary Let There Be Light, Freddie drifts from work as a department store photographer in Los Angeles to pulling cabbage in Salinas, and he's literally chased out of both occupations.
Finally, Freddie stumbles onto Dodd's steamboat and into the bizarre fold of this newly formed Scientology-like self-help religion based on Dodd's science-fiction-laced psychology musings. Dodd is clearly attracted to Freddie as both an acolyte and guinea pig—and maybe more, as a third act serenade suggests—while Freddie is intrigued by Dodd's command of a room and his promise to provide the answers to existence.
If Phoenix's Freddie was just a hair smarter, a tad more ambitious, his willful abandon and self-destructive behavior might have been seen as a dramatic, damning weakness, one that led him down intriguing roads and existential decisions. As is, the dimwit, PSD routine—though fascinatingly rendered in a punching bag, beat poet, freak-flag-flying-way—lowers the stakes and severely undercuts the weight of Anderson's tale. Plus, I'm sorry to say Joaquin, it gets just a little old in its consistency around the two hour mark.
Where is the tension when we're never given one iota of an indication that Phoenix's seaman lost on land is capable of outfoxing his verbose, Teflon Svengali? This student is never given the opportunity to be the teacher—an odd decision for Anderson to make considering he has crafted Dodd to be such a singular dreamer, and one with vices of his own that align frighteningly well with Freddie's.
With compelling performances from the leads as well as Amy Adams, playing Dodd's pregnant new wife as an increasingly vocal Lady MacBeth in waiting, lush, literary imagery and Jonny Greenwood's heart-rattling, off-kilter score, Anderson delivers a handful of memorable, must-watch scenes, particularly Phoenix's first and most intense “processing” session with Hoffman and the pair's red-faced shouting fit behind bars. But ultimately, this script is a missed opportunity, as itinerant and aimless and Phoenix's drifter. The Master is a rare film in which the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.
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