I first heard about the “The Master” several months before its release. After reading the synopsis, and finding out that it was going to be a thinly veiled slam on the cult of Scientology, which would be written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix), I could not have been more excited. I am a huge fan of PTA’s previous works “Magnolia”, “Boogie Nights”, and particularly, his latest crowning jewel ; “There Will Be Blood”. However, unlike his previous works, “The Master” is missing something. Unfortunately, it’s a big something.
Before we get to what was missing, let’s take a moment to recognize what was still there. Most of PTA’s movies do a great job of capturing the finer details of any given scene with a hyper-realist approach. His movies consistently make me feel like I’m watching a piece of history unfold before my eyes. This is quite an accomplishment, considering what we are really watching : a bunch of overpaid actors blurting out lines on a closed set. “Boogie Nights” simply oozed the essence of the 70’s / early 80’s. And I don’t know what kind of extensive research was done for “There Will Be Blood”. But, my god, did he capture an astonishingly detailed account of what life might have been like for an “oil man” at the turn of the century. “The Master” continued this theme of immersing audiences in a visceral experience, this time using post WWII America as a backdrop.
Another strength that PTA has as a director, is squeezing the best performance possible out of his actors. Granted, when you are working with the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, and Joaquin Phoenix, it makes your job a lot easier. But, don’t forget, he’s also drawn max talent from non-Oscar talents like Burt Reynolds, Kevin J. O’Connor, Mark Wahlberg, and Heather Graham. Whether you like his movies or not, this guy knows how to motivate. And “The Master” is no exception. Hoffman plays cult leader Lancaster Dodd brilliantly. And Phoenix’s virtuoso performance as wack-job Freddie Quell, is a shoe-in for a best-actor nod. Between his sicko half-grin laugh, and his bizarre, elbows-forward posture, portraying this character seemed to go beyond just “acting”. If I were one of the actors who had to get beaten up by Freddy(there are several), I would be genuinely frightened by the whimsical ferocity of Joaquin Phoenix, not just his character.
Hoffman and Phoenix developed a terrific rhythm together as actors, and it became quite gripping to watch them play off eachother. In particular, the “don’t blink” scene, and the prison meltdown scene made me think that perhaps PTA yelling “cut” would not have yielded any change in the actors personalities. However, if it wasn’t for this caliber of acting prowess, I’m not sure how anyone could sit through a movie with pacing this lethargic.
Which brings me to my main gripe with the film. Where’s the meat?? I mean, nothing really happens. While the style points and acting chops are great and all, at the end of the day, this is really just a two-hour character study. There is one small payoff at the end, when Dodd finally realizes that Freddie is beyond his grasp of control(while Freddy comes to accept that Dodd is completely full of shit”). But, overall, nothing compelling ever happens to our characters. What was missing in all of this magnificent artistry, was the most important variable : an entertaining story. I’d much rather watch poorly acted, drab characters dwelling within a gripping storyline, than watch fascinating characters, brilliantly acted, with very little happening to them. So, was this a good movie? Yes. Would I watch it again? Probably not. I’ll just revisit the best scenes again on Feburary 24th at 7pm on ABC.
Overall Rating : 6.8/10