Anderson’s not quite “Master”piece
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 00:10
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) examines what happens when the spiritually weak come under the spell of a charismatic religious cult leader in “The Master,” an interesting but uneven melodrama.
Anderson focuses on one such spiritually-weak person in particular. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line”) is a World War II U.S. Navy veteran who has been plagued for years with addictions to alcohol and casual sex. Freddie goes to extremes to get booze any time he wants it, even going so far as to distill alcohol from paint thinner. He also has a violent temper, often getting into fistfights for no apparent reason. Freddie stows away on a cruise ship, where cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”) is celebrating the wedding of his daughter. Lancaster befriends Freddie, and soon begins to convince him that Lancaster’s religious group, “The Cause,” can help Freddie overcome his demons.
Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, makes the film generally compelling during its first half, but gradually begins to sputter, and runs out of ideas before it is over. The character of Lancaster is a writer who founded his religion on the basic belief that interrogating a person about his past traumas, reliving them, and talking about them will relieve his inner soul from torture. Lancaster also believes that failure to do so will result in making the same mistakes the next time he is reincarnated. Lancaster calls this process “auditing.” The auditing process is presented in a fascinating way, with Lancaster taking Freddie under his wing to find out what is troubling him. Lancaster and Freddie have a difficult father-son type of relationship, complete with several falling-outs and reconciliations. Lancaster and Freddie are well-written characters, who are fully fleshed out people with complex lives and no easy answers.
Anderson tries to examine both sides of the religious issue. When Lancaster is confronted by a reporter who questions his authenticity, Lancaster tells him all the reasons that his suspicions are wrong. On the other hand, Lancaster’s own son (Jesse Plemons, who actually resembles a younger Hoffman) expresses doubt about whether his father’s auditing process actually does any good, and even wonders if his dad is just making up his religious beliefs as he goes along.
The problem with Anderson’s script is that it seems to be building up to something that never actually happens. Some of the disagreements between Lancaster and Freddie are fairly muddled, and it is not obvious what they are fighting about. There is no payoff by the time the story has reached its end, and it is not clear what the characters, especially Freddie, are supposed have learned from everything they have gone through. The film could have benefitted from a stronger and more cohesive narrative.
Anderson is a talented director, often making films about difficult topics, such as gambling addiction (“Hard Eight”) and the adult film industry (“Boogie Nights”). In “The Master,” he gets outstanding performances by the leads, has fine cinematography, and features an excellent score.
Hoffman is mesmerizing as Lancaster. He is effectively subtle in the quiet moments and riveting in the loud ones. He delivers charisma and charm as a church leader, but also shows the sleazy side, without letting his performance become overheated. His work is worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
Phoenix is at his best since “Walk the Line.” Phoenix is willing to go out to any extreme edge that his character needs. When Lancaster and Freddie are held in a jail cell in one crucial scene, Freddie snaps, and Phoenix is scary and unnerving. Yelling, screaming, crying and snarling like a caged dog, Phoenix lets out the inner turmoil Freddie is feeling and hits all the right notes. Phoenix’s acting is a reminder of how regrettable it is that the headlines about his personal life sometimes overshadow his abilities.
Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. creates a stunning atmosphere, beautifully shooting the scenes that always evoke the right mood. The score by Jonny Greenwood is slow, stark and sad, always right on target.
Despite the incredible amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, “The Master” does not quite come together in the way that it should. Anderson steps up to the plate whenever he makes a film, and his failures are more interesting than some other directors’ successes. But, without a truly coherent story at the film’s heart, Anderson goes down swinging.
“The Master” receives 2.5 out of 5 stars.