When the final image cut to black in today’s 70mm Dome showing of The Master, an eerie stillness hung over the nearly full 700-person theater. Nobody really clapped, with the exception of a few people at the names of Joaquin Phoenix and Laura Dern (for some reason), but those names came four or five text frames into the credits. Nobody really got up, either. People just kind of sat there. Still, in a trance, or frozen in time. I can assume they were pondering what on Earth they just watched. I know I was. But before I even started thinking about critiquing Paul Thomas Anderson, or PTA’s, latest work, one thought rushed into my mind. A phrase, rather: What a shame. You see, I’m a rather big fan of PTA’s other work, especially the sprawling, 3-hour drama Magnolia, so I was geuninely excited to see The Master, hoping it would be a great, maybe even classic American epic that could sweep the Oscars and the world off it’s feet. It comes close at points. But close isn’t good enough when so much of the essential stuff to make it truly brilliant is missing. The Masterfollows Freddie Quell, a post-WWII drifter who borderlines on insanity, who gets swept up in the teachings of one Lancaster Dodd, a self-proclaimed Master of his system of beliefs known as The Cause.
I wasn’t fully satisfied, at least, not satisfied as I wanted to be with The Master, but I’ll give credit where credit is due. I’d rather not see
this get nominated for Best Picture, or Director for that matter, but I know in my heart it’d be a damn shame to see Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman not be recognized for their work in this film. Both of them envelop their characters on the screen, and by the time the film ends, they have become them, delivering wonderful, engaging, unique performances that drive the heart of the film. What’s even better is the relationship built between Freddie and Lancaster, which gets the film through some long scenes in a breeze. However, the dramatic heart of this relationship deserved to be explored more, because it truly was incredible. There’s a scene, shown in the trailers, in which Freddie and Lancaster yell at each other from opposite prison cells. It’s an incredible scene, one of the best of the year, but, and I will get to this in my analysis of the plot and writing, it’s just a scene. Never explored more than that. Not even having a place in the coherency of the plot or characters. Amy Adams is minimistically devious as Lancaster’s wife, and while she isn’t on screen for a lot of the time (and the times she is can be very, very, very, very weird, anyone who’s seen the film will get this, i.e. the bathroom scene with Adams and Hoffman), she does have some good moments, especially in a scene around the dinner table in which she coldly quips about Freddie, “Perhaps he’s beyond help. Or insane. And if we continue to have him here, it will be our undoing.” She’s a stone cold woman, really.
The story of The Master is where things kind of fall apart for me, and while others will disagree with me on this, I think it’s one of the most disappointing aspects of any film of the year so far, mainly because of the potential. There’s a good premise here, one reminiscent of Scientology, although you’ll never get PTA to say that. He’s very adament this isn’t THE SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE. But to be frank, I can’t see The Cause being anything but Scientology. For the first hour-and-a-half of this film, the story goes off without a hitch and builds an interesting relationship and conflict to come. It’s entertaining, sometimes funny, extremely well-acted, and beautifully filmed. However, just as Dodd’s wife claims Freddie Quell will be their undoing, the second half is the undoing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic venture.
The second half of The Master, and I say this truly disappointed, is a bloated, boring, nearly self-indugelent piece of work nearly unrecognizable, oddly enough, to what came before in this film. It lets style weigh over substance, trading in what could’ve been dramatic and emotional depth for an unconclusive, anti-climactic ending that I’m still trying to wrap my head around and find out if there was any significance to it whatsoever.
However, with that all said, The Master, from a technical perspective, is a piece of work in the most positive sense of the term. PTA utilizes 70mm to accentuate the stunning imagery in the best way possible. The cinematography is great, as is the eerie and hauntingly beautiful score. There’s moments in this film that I’m sure I will never fully understand, as long as I live. However, I’ll sure as hell talk about it until the minute the Oscars start. Love it or hate it, anyone who has seen it will surely do the same. And that in itself is something masterful.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★★★☆ (6.5/10 stars)
FINAL SAY: Though the storytelling is messy and a bit too abstract, The Master does manage to be a well shot drama with great performances from Phoenix and Hoffman, even if it does absolutely fall apart after a great first half.