“Punch Drunk Love” is my definitive, absolute favorite film of all time. “Magnolia” is a masterwork of multiple characters and themes uniting in a beautiful mess of humanity. “There Will Be Blood” is a brilliant take on men of ambition and the role of a Father. “Boogie Nights” is a filthy foray into brokenness, told with skill and precision featuring characters you love while aiming to keep a distance from. And “Hard Eight” was a brilliant debut of great things to come.
Yes, I love P.T. Anderson.
Perhaps moreso than any other working filmmaker (save for Scorsese), I will see his films day 1 with huge anticipation thanks to his vision, style and execution. He's not let me down yet. In watching the trailer for “The Master,” I thought Anderson had chosen the perfect story for his unique filmmaking skill set. So it was with total disappointment that after seeing the film I was completely let down. I don’t know what to think of “The Master,” and in this case that’s not a good thing.
Freddie Quell is coming home from the service, but something is wrong. Freddie is prone to the strangest of liquor creations, has a violent temperament, and a past that is shrouded in secrecy. After several jobs, he finds himself stowed away on a ship that is helmed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a self proclaimed scientist, nuclear physicist, and other manner of thinker but tells Freddie he is above all a man, just like him. The rest of the movie shows the 2 of them interacting…without much else happening.
What’s no surprise about “The Master” is how great the sum of its parts are. The acting is on another level, particularly Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix talks out of the left side of his mouth and has a particularly interesting physicality in his role. His speech is often slurred – partly due to his drunkenness, partly due to his deeply scarred mental health (Freddie's that is...Phoenix is still in some question) – and each movement is delivered with a sense of unpredictability. He is always on the verge of being ready to snap.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is likewise engaging as the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Dodd at one moment is charming and humorous, but when provoked lashes out at his critics and even followers. The rest of the supporting cast is overshadowed by these 2 performances alone. The film is also gorgeous to look at, thanks to an unconventional film technique used, and there are several moments of the film that are emotionally engaging.
But "The Master" just doesn’t connect. I can’t fully articulate why – this is a director whom I love, a subject matter of great interest (Dodd and his group “The Cause” are pretty close in practice to Scientology), and stellar acting. Perhaps Anderson was too stuck inside his head? The pacing was tough: At 1 hour, I started feeling bored. At 2 hours I was wondering how the film would end. When it did end I was mainly confused, if a little relieved. Yes, the film is exploring the relationship between these 2 men. But so what? Where is this all leading us to? At some point, I just stopped caring about the characters. Freddie has clear mental health issues and Dodd's charm is undermined by his unstable worldview.
Meanwhile, the characters are still worth rooting for. We find out in a brilliantly played scene about Freddie’s history and it gives us insight into his tortured soul. But it doesn't have much movement in the film (which perhaps is the point Anderson is making?). In one scene (shown in the trailer), a character points out that Dodd is making it up as he goes along. But so what? What will it lead us to? Going nowhere with it dilutes the tension to almost nothing that it feels of no consequence what Freddie does or doesn't do.
"The Master" continues Anderson’s apparent love of the subject of Father’s and son’s. Dodd is certainly a Father figure to Freddie in addition to be someone who gives Freddie hope. Dodd appears caring, even affectionate to Freddie who deeply needs genuine love in his life. Anderson seems to specialize in the role of Fathers and son’s, such as in films like “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood.” Here, it certainly feels like an important theme in terms of one huge area where Freddie is in pain.
In many ways, watching "The Master" is like seeing a band made up of great musicians who forgot how to write a good song. Yes, the drummer is tight, precise, and can create amazing beats. Yes, the guitar player can solo his brains out effortlessly. Yes, the vocalist has impressive range and silky smooth delivery. But without a good song to play, it’s just a bunch of talented noise. “The Master” has great acting, cinematography, and great direction with what on paper appears to be a potent story. It’s disappointing then that it doesn't amount to being a great movie.