Movie Review: The Master

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language, 137 minutes, Drama

Compare to: The Aviator (2004), There Will Be Blood (2007)

It doesn’t surprise me that a movie from Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights (1997) and  Magnolia (2000), would receive such unanimous critical acclaim for anything else he does. He’s a director much like Aronofsky and Kubrick, it seems he can do no wrong.

Younger audiences and casual viewers won’t care for this one, I can tell you that up front. But for those who are looking to take part in a film that isn’t going for any idea that you don’t figure out on your own- this is for you. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but it tight-rope walks the line.

Freddie Quell isn’t doing very well. An alcoholic suffering from PTSD after World War II, Quell is fired from his job as a shopping mall photographer after assaulting a customer. His problems don’t end there as he drifts from place to place looking for… something. Soon he meets Lancaster Dodd, a man who seems to have it all figured out, and has the readers and listeners to prove it. His audience hangs on to every word he says and Freddie wants to believe it too. So begins a tumultuous relationship as Dodd mentors Freddie and the rest of his followers. But how much can Freddie take before Dodd’s teachings become see-through? Does he even believe what he’s saying?

More or less based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as well as many life experiences of John Steinbeck, The Master poses many interesting questions not by asking them out loud, but by bringing them to the surface, unlike the character of Dodd who gets Freddie into a room and asks him the most straight-forward, tough-as-nails questions about Freddie’s own past. It’s the beginning of a long teacher-student relationship that keeps you on edge even as the characters themselves are enjoying each others company. You never really know what’s going to happen next.

Anderson’s style of letting a long scene draw itself out, often times with no music and only background noise (if that) is an approach not seen very often and for good reason. It works here, for the friendship of Dodd and Quell is strange one and when the two sit in a silent room discussing (usually) Quell, we’re never quite sure how it’s going to play out. Hoffman is friendly, open, and convincing while Phoenix as Quell is hard-headed and brutish. Quell is open to help for the sake of something new but he’s quick to revert back to his old ways of drinking and stumbling thorough the day. But will he keep it up? Part of the “fun” if you want to call it that, is to see if Dodd really can change Quell for the better. But if Dodd does change him and help acquit him of his major problems, will his help even be better for Quell?

Every member of the cast is absolute in their performance. Hoffman’s portrayal of the founder of “The Cause,” Lancaster Dodd is a role of dual complexity rarely seen in cinema for one reason or another. Yet the opportunity in this story is inviting to it and Hoffman explores the role as if he himself had lived through that figure’s life.

Joaquin Phoenix as the slovenly drunk Quell is a complete contrast to Dodd, giving into every impulse he has and hating himself for it throughout. It seems he wants to change, but the thought of all that effort seems tiring. His character is one of simplicity but, in the process of remaining a figure of such base desires, Phoenix’s role is also deepened in way that makes us take for granted a character that could have been played by anyone who thought they could play a drunk. Phoenix, who hasn’t been seen on film since his 2010 mockumentary “I’m Still Here” returns with a role that, if told it were his last, would definitely be a high point.

Amy Adams seems to have hit her streak too, playing Dodd’s wife, who sometimes appears to be devoted follower while other times appearing to run things behind the scenes, specifically reminding the viewer that Dodd, for all his social graces and persuasive anecdotes, he is still just a man. Adams recently appeared in the critically mediocre Trouble with the Curve starring Clint Eastwood and while her performance in Curve was of no particular issue, here she’s given a role that leads us to believe she could play an angel or Satan if the roles were offered.

Many of these questions and ideas though are only brought up throughout the story if it’s what you’re looking for. If you want to simply sit back and enjoy the show, you may be in for a waste of time. The average movie goer may fight the pacing and plot to be long, drawn out, and tedious as many did with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Believing no movie to be beyond reproach, one couldn’t be blamed for seeing this film as any of the negative descriptions above though writing it off as “slow” or something of the like would be selling yourself short.

Don’t be surprised for this to get some sort of Oscar nod at the very least and due to any of the performances, it would be justified, leaving story and all other aspects alone. Don’t ignore this one, we don’t get many like it.

Grade: B+

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