As World War II is winding down, Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is discharged from the navy. An aimless, troubled drifter with a drink problem, Freddie struggles to adjust to civilian life and ends up stumbling from one job to the next. Things change, however, when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a new movement called The Cause, who takes Freddie under his wing…
Even though The Master is the sort of swirling experience which takes time to process and chew on, it’s clear that it won’t be for everyone. The long-awaited sixth feature from critical darling Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s another accomplished and purposefully uncomfortable effort which will delight arthouse buffs and bore mainstream viewers in equal measure. Challenging, uncompromising and impeccably crafted, Anderson’s devout followers are destined to embrace it like Freddie trying to shag a female-shaped sandcastle.
But while there’s certainly much to admire from a critical point of view, it all feels somewhat empty. A touch overlong and with a tendency to meander unnecessarily (during the second half, especially), The Master will prove frustrating and underwhelming to those who frequently find PTA’s work cold or unsatisfying. More fascinating than it is fulfilling, many sequences are absorbing (such as Freddie getting into a department store fight), but others are just plain odd (see the party where naked girls appear). With Anderson’s last picture, the superior There Will Be Blood, many of us felt the need for a second viewing in order to fully ‘get’ what it was (which helped), but here that’s not the case.
Undoubtedly, it’s another outstanding technical achievement. Typically controlled, Anderson employs his trademark long-takes and some striking cinematography from Mihai Malaimare, ensuring that it looks amazing throughout. From the opening shot of hypnotic, lapping waves to Freddie riding a motorcycle across an expansive desert plain, you get the feeling that every shot was agonised over. Which it probably was. But while it manages to engage us visually and intellectually, The Master fails to do so emotionally or narratively, as it’s more the work of an artist than it is a storyteller.
As has been widely reported, it’s not ‘about’ Scientology, per se. Of course, “The Cause” unquestionably mirrors L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudo-scientific ‘religion’, but instead of the scathing attack some were expecting it’s used as a starting point for an examination of cult and Anderson’s usual themes. Daddy issues, the search for connection, belonging, makeshift family, you know the score. And, like There Will Be Blood, it boasts an unsettling Jonny Greenwood score (which has shades of Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet Of The Apes about it), an ambitious scope, a period setting and two men locked in a power struggle.
Which is where the movie succeeds. For when Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are colliding on screen together, The Master is electrifying. Far less so, unfortunately, when they’re on their own, even if Phoenix is hugely convincing as the slurry, damagingly unlikeable bag-of-bones that is Freddie (to the point you question whether he’s really acting) and Hoffman is compelling enough to largely sell Dodd’s powerful allure. Both will be involved come Oscar season. Meanwhile, Jesse Plemons is wasted as Dodd’s son (his disbelief in The Cause would’ve been an interesting dynamic to explore further), while Amy Adams stands out as the puppeteer who is literally pulling Lancaster’s string.
Another challenging, impeccably crafted and purposefully uncomfortable effort which will delight arthouse buffs and bore mainstream viewers in equal measure, The Master isn’t for everyone.