The Master comes with plenty of buzz. It is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature since There Will Be Blood, one of the great films in cinema history, an operatic, yet naturalistic story that burns itself into our memory. Anderson’s work is nothing short of genius so it’s a bitter disappointment that The Master is a letdown.
Rich in symbolism and complexity, but mired in over weaning performances, The Master is a cerebral exercise concerning the nature of will. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) a navy man returns home to the US after experiencing the horrors of World War II. He’s haunted, damaged and unable to process the meaning of it all. He is debriefed, and warned that no one on the outside will understand what soldiers have been through, or care much for them.
So Freddie and these scarred young men are sent back to society and told to make it on their own. Chances are slim because their emotional and physical injuries make it impossible to be “normal” again.
Freddie’s got a harder job ahead of him than most. He has tremendous rage, he’s an alcoholic and he’s unintelligent. He operates with his fists and his thoughts are scrambled. He loses jobs due to his violent, alcoholic temper.
One night he breaks onto a boat one night to find liquor and women, and intrudes on a wedding presided over by Laurence Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd happens to be the charismatic leader of a cult known as The Cause. He’s intrigued by this lost cause of a man and sees a guinea pig for his mental experiments.
Dodd promises to help Freddie throw off the chains of past experiences and invites him into his school where he espouses his theories to his adoring, wealthy students. He forces Freddie to undergo cruel mental exercises that humiliate and anger him, as the students watch. Dodd is a soulless crackpot, a dangerous manipulator who fabricates stories about souls and saving mankind; his son knows he’s a fraud but Freddie’s pathetically mesmerized.
The Cause appears to have certain parallels to Scientology where acolytes allow their masters to direct their lives in intimate detail, with military precision, where one’s free will is crushed in obeisance to an idea of here The Master.
Dodd and Freddie are deeply unappealing characters whose extreme narcissism and ego define and destroy them. Anderson gave us one of these men before in Daniel Plainview, but Hoffman and Phoenix isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis.
Their performances problems come from theatrical navel gazing, and fail to reach the human essence of their characters. If they did, we’d care about them, not that Anderson is necessarily aiming at engaging our hearts.
That job that requires greater subtlety than the leads are willing to give. At times, they resort to stunts. Again, I cite Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview whose complexity felt real and intriguing, captivating even in its evil. Overly showy, self-conscious performances complete with constant bodily noises, farting, endless throat clearing, grunting and other look-at-me fillips. They compete for attention over character development to an embarrassing degree.
It’s an intensely cold film, emphasizing intellect over all else. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it only pretends to recognize human emotions. They are filtered through ice. They’re not important. That is left to Freddie’s theatrical outbursts and Hoffman’s attention seeking tics.
Still it’s a gorgeous film, especially in 70mm, strikingly beautiful and artistic on a grand scale. Behold Dodd sitting behind a massive desk in a plain, sky high room, against a wall sized window; pure theatre. But not enough to feel a single authentic emotion.
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Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Opens Sept 21
Runtime: 137 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language