Overview: The founder of a questionable religious movement takes an obsessive interest in a crude, sex-obsessed World War II veteran who struggles with functioning in his post-war life. 2012; Rated R; 143 Minutes
The High Art: Philip Seymour Hoffman provides a quiet storm of a performance as Lancaster Dodd, striking a brilliant balance of strength and subtlety. When the movie settles in, it’s Hoffman’s character viewers will want to revisit with analysis. And Joaquin Phoenix is doing something of note here; something so effectively transformative that it transcends acting as we most commonly think of it. Amy Adams is jarring as Lancaster’s wife and supporter Peggy Dodd. The Master marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s first tandem with cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. and the decision to film in 65 mm created a product worth witness for those who were able to view the film in theaters in this format.
The Missteps: Anderson is a high artist of film, proven by masterpieces like There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. But at times here, his sharpest tools work against him. This time around, his score (provided again by familiar collaborator Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead) is obtrusive and clumsy, and a constant reminder that you are watching an artist try his hardest. In The Master, Anderson’s symbolic, psychologically-loaded, or abstract stretches of storytelling are heavy-handed, awkward, and borderline farce. The naked dancing, film’s least sexy hand job, and whatever the hell is happening in that back and forth “touch the window, touch the wall” scene. It’s all too much.
The Downright Pratfall: Reports have inspiration for this film’s script coming from several different sources (the story of L. Ron Hubbard, John Steinbeck’s life story, original script drafts of There Will Be Blood, stories told by a friend of Thomas) and these disparate influences are evident. While the first act sets a pace for a historically great film, the third act offers no resolution or closure and makes the viewer in retrospect wonder if the second act even presented conflict. Or a point.
Summation: It is evident that The Master hopes to inspire conversation, but where does that conversation start? Watch any great movie and as soon as you finish, simply ask “So what?” True greatness (and usually even passing goodness if in the company of movie-people) will ignite any number of extensive conversations from this question alone. The Master lends only to appreciative conversation toward its form. Its function is only approachable with vague ambiguities. It does not pass the “So what?” test. In fact, perhaps the most important conversation presented here is this: What do we do with wonderful performances—or for that matter any exemplary singular contributions—that lend to a whole that is ultimately pointless? That is Paul Thomas Anderson’s disservice to his actors and chief photographer in this movie.