Paul Thomas Anderson has a phenomenal track record as a writer/director. With huge, successful productions like 'Boogie Nights' and 'There Will Be Blood,' expectations are always sky high for his newest project. It comes to us in the form of 'The Master.'
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a WWII veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He has violent outbursts, is sexually obsessed and has little stability in his life.
One night, he sneaks onto a docked yacht which is owned by a fellow named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is known by most, and throughout most of the story, as Master. You see, Dodd runs a religion with his family that is interested in finding the truths of the universe by examining their past lives through hypnosis (of sorts) and intense questioning. In part thanks to Freddie's ability to make moonshine out of almost anything, Dodd, takes a liking to this lost soul. Soon, Freddie begins to be 'processed' or initiated into the group.
Could it be possible that this man who claims to know all of the secrets to life and the universe is making it up as he goes? Will Freddie find the solace that he doesn't seem to realize that he needs? Will Dodd's cult-like religion truly catch on despite the sea of skeptical (aka. logical) people?
The big reason to watch this is to see Phoenix and Hoffman in action. They both bring an intensity to their roles, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Freddie is potentially dangerous and unpredictable. Dodd is often intense with processing and training Freddie and has a few stress-induced outbursts, but usually, he is a patient and charismatic leader. Whether he fully buys into the misinformation that he is spewing is largely left up to interpretation, but there is a widespread belief that the film is a commentary on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, so do with that information what you will. Perhaps the true pillar of the organization is Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd's wife. Their adult children also participate heavily.
Outside of the characters, acting and sterling dialog, the problem is that the story seems to spin its wheels for far too long. Freddie has a few important interactions early and a big internal conflict for a character is eventually wrapped up, but quite a bit of time is spent focusing on Freddie who is thrown in amongst a cult where he is clearly an odd fit. The contrast between the disciplined and studious family (and assorted followers) and a drunk wildman is pounded into the ground. While the relationship between Freddie and Dodd evolves and grows more fascinating, relatively little happens. They characters themselves don't really change at all. Neither has a grand epiphany or changes his ways. They drift along, devoted to each other but never truly finding common ground. It is a case of a man who is truly free but without any guiding principals versus one who has an unwavering determination yet must devote all of his time and energy trying to convince his followers, his detractors and possibly even himself about the validity of The Cause.
This will likely be lumped in with Anderson's other less-universally-embraced films: 'Magnolia' and 'Punch Drunk Love.' Like this, those films were undeniably well made and have plenty of merit, but they are incredibly divisive for audiences. When one emphasizes characters at the expense of plot, it is easy to lose people.
Special features include: outtakes, additional scenes, trailers and a short behind the scenes.
'The Master' is a stunningly filmed picture (shot on 70 mm film!) with two dynamite performances. That will take a project very far, but tethered to a plot that is uninterested in moving the story forward, it's not enough.
The result is a movie that is easy to admire, but not quite as easy to fully enjoy.
Rated R 143 minutes 2013