I had high hopes for the Master, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix and Hoffman are two superb actors, not afraid to expose themselves for their craft and indeed, they are the best part of the movie.
Unfortunately, from where I sat, they were the only good thing about the movie.
Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a damaged ex-Navy man
Running at 138 minutes, the Master is a lengthy but slow look into life in the 1950s of a cult of personality, 'The Cause', headed by the ever charismatic Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. Accompanied by his acerbic tongued wife, a surprising Amy Adams, the Master takes his followers on a literal and metaphorical journey through past lives. The problem is that they, like the film, never get anywhere.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the 'Master'
Stowing away on a boat that happens to be used by the Master to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, is Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a returned naval serviceman, damaged by the war: bent, drunk and crude.
You never find out exactly what happened to Phoenix during the war to damage him, but you suspect he was probably not a glossy quarterback before he enlisted. The opening scene depicts him having sex with a sand sculpture and then masturbating into the sea.
With plenty of close-ups, no make-up, and his lip scar made even more prominent by a snarling smile and slurring speech, the other characters as have as much difficulty understanding Freddie/Phoenix as the audience does. Scenes that have Freddie with his shirt off, show a bent and bony back, reminiscent of Gollum. It's not a pretty sight.
Instead of kicking the unpredictable and reckless Freddie off the boat, the Master keeps him around, and gives him one task: to keep making his lethal 'hooch', a potent liquor he mixes from pretty much anything he sees lying around including photographic chemicals, paint thinner and fuel.
Freddie steals a bike and makes the Master walk home
When the Master offers to Freddie to undertake 'processing' (the film is partly based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard), we are taken on a series of flashbacks to before the war, when he is courting a very young (16 year old) Doris. Doris is obviously pivotal to Freddie's descent but there is no resolution to this subplot. Doris simply moves away and marries someone else. Like much of the rest of the film, I was left wondering 'where is this going?'
This is not a mainstream, popular movie. There are no explosions, no car chases, no big budget effects. There is little in the way of laughs and any sex has all romance stripped away. It is an uncomfortable film, awkward. A scene where all the female members of the Cause are naked (including a beautifully saggy elderly pianist and a pregnant Amy Adams) sees them all with thick, dark merkins. I ask again: what's the point?
Ultimately, there were few redeeming features to this movie. The characters may be interesting, but they weren't likeable. There was no beautiful cinematography, no moving soundtrack, and – most devastatingly – no real plot. While there may be a glimpse of satisfaction for some viewers who believe in the brain-washing aspect of cults, others will find the conclusion bereft of anything resembling satisfaction. I found it extremely frustrating.
The acting however was great.
The Master won Best Film at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, so obviously not everyone shares my lack of enthusiasm for this movie.