While watching “The Master,” you will think a great deal. You will think about whether or not you left the lights on at home. You will think about what you’ll have for dinner tomorrow. You will think about why the hell you are sitting in the theater watching “The Master” when you could be attending to those matters, because they are far more interesting than this bloated thin failure of a film could ever hope to be.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has just been released back into society after serving in World War II, and is struggling to acclimate to the world around him, turning to alcohol and random sexual encounters for comfort. In one of his drunken excursions after running away from a job, he comes across Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of an almost cult-like philosophical movement called “The Cause” that Dodd has created that seems to fly in the face of everything mainstream society knows (insert Scientology joke here). Dodd takes an interest in Quell and invites him to travel with other members who support “The Cause” to spread its teachings.
Sounds intriguing, right? Sounds like a story that Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s often been praised as one of the great filmmakers of our time, could make interesting, right? Wrong.
The greatest weakness in “The Master” is that it lacks a coherent narrative. In addition, it is appallingly paced, slowing to a crawl during irrelevant, indulgent moments that serve no purpose but to stroke Anderson’s ego, but flying past vital scenes that might develop the characters or story or keep the viewer invested. The result is a film that feels both overblown and undercooked, never bothering to explore the numerous avenues of character or narrative that it constantly opens up but quite content to indulge in moments of “artiness” that mean exactly squat in the grand scheme of things (Shots of the ocean! Joaquin Phoenix faking sex with a sand woman! Random boobies! This must be art!).
A great example of this is a scene toward the beginning of the film that’s actually somewhat compelling, in which Dodd performs a sort of therapy exercise on Quell, asking him strange and provocative questions (“Have you ever had intercourse with a member of your family?”). The scene is intense and could possibly lead to an elaboration on the theme of how cult-like organizations indoctrinate and manipulate their members… except it doesn’t. There’s only one other scene in which we see Dodd performing a similar exercise, and none of the questions end up as recurring points of reference, thematic or otherwise. The film constantly sets up subplots and characters that could be interesting (Quell’s romantic interest in a much younger girl, Dodd’s wife) and flings them and any subtext in them away. If you find yourself hoping the film will delve deeper into anything it presents you, prepare for the realization that (to quote The Nostalgia Chick’s review of “Reality Bites”) you are Sideshow Bob, and this film is a yard full of rakes.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a film that likes to live in the moment. The recent “Killer Joe” did the same thing, but that film at least had the decency to be entertaining, and was populated by characters with personalities one could identify and concrete goals. It at least occasionally used setup and payoff from time to time. “The Master” just kind of sits there on the screen, posturing as if to say, “I don’t have to explain jack s—t to you! Appreciate me, dammit!”
And there is some material to appreciate here. For instance, “The Master” is the first film since Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of “Hamlet” to be shot completely in glorious 65mm, and it shows. The visuals are rich and occasionally intoxicating, particularly in the careful framing and selection of every shot. In addition, the actors (particularly Hoffman and Phoenix) give finely tuned, technically adroit performances, managing to be gripping even when their material fails them. And to the material’s credit, at least it does try to be about something that’s important and has potentially intriguing real-life connections (ahem, ahem, Michael Bay).
But technical virtuosity does not necessarily translate into quality product, and that is certainly the case here. “The Master” is a cold, lifeless film from start to finish, and Anderson never stops to let air into the machinery. Despite the performers being technically impressive (no false notes here), try as they might, they cannot wring emotion out of such soulless writing. Even the usually radiant Amy Adams is rendered stiff and robotic by the barely functional dialogue she’s given. In addition, a film just being all pretty simply for the sake of being pretty doesn’t count for much if the prettiness only serves as a distraction from the barely existent story and characters, rather than an accompaniment to it.
In summation, “The Master” is a finely crafted film, but plays as so off-handed that it doesn’t deserve the slightest bit of… hang on, is the toaster still plugged in?
Speakeasy Grade: C-
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language