Early on the movie, I muttered to myself “Paul Thomas Anderson is the master.”
He showed scenes of waves breaking behind a boat in the water, and it mesmerizing. Even shots of people picking lettuce or chopping coconuts off trees were interesting to watch. Perhaps part of the credit of that goes to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. And where Greenwood ? did the musical score in There Will Be Blood (which didn’t work for that film), the score fits perfectly here.
Yet I find myself saying that The Master is far from a masterpiece. It’s a movie that doesn’t answer a lot of questions, it has one-dimensional characters, and just isn’t all that interesting.
The story involves a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) out of the Navy after World War II. He gets various jobs, and is an alcoholic and sex addict. He also seems to be channeling Mel Gibson.
Phoenix ends up jumping onto a boat that’s having a lavish party. The ships captain is a cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The ‘50s were recreated perfectly, right down to the portraits Phoenix takes at the store he’s working in.
After Phoenix talks to Hoffman’s wife (Amy Adams) and a few of his sons, he decides he’ll join the Cause, and be a guinea pig. There are a few interesting scenes of him taking tests with Hoffman. I was a little confused with how Phoenix was so into sex early on (a quicky with a store employee, having sex with a woman made of sand, masturbating into the ocean, etc). Yet when he has the opportunity with some attractive women in the cult, he refrains.
The film isn’t the expose on Scientology that many said it was going to be. I’m guessing that’s a relief to Tom Cruise, who was great in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia.
I loved Anderson’s films There Will be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights is one of my all-time favorites. I disliked the vagueness of his first movie – Hard Eight. And this movie suffers the same problem. Also, the two characters don’t change much after meeting one another, and I’m not sure why Hoffman is so drawn to Phoenix.
Time Magazine critic Richard Corliss had the headline “There Will Be Boredom” which is hysterical. I wasn’t bored by the movie, but I’m guessing most audience members will be. They’ll also be bothered by the critics praising this, and the seven Oscar nominations it will get.
One of the many frustrating things about this was not getting any of the back story on Hoffman.
Another was the fact that Hoffman, as great as his performance was, just didn’t strike me as a person who would be a good cult leader; good looking, charismatic. A better film that came out this year about cults – The Sound of my Voice – has a cult leader that has an ethereal beauty and is somebody we could see weak minded people following.
There are at least 10 scenes in this I loved. One involves an arrest that puts the two leads in jail right next to each other. One is calm, and one is bashing up his cell.
I thought Phoenix was amazing in that scene, but in many of the others, I was distracting by watching somebody “act.” That includes his bizarre lip curl, or the weird posture he had. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about it as much if this weren’t the first movie he’s done in five years, and the last one being that I’m Still Standing, which was a fake documentary showing him as a celebrity going nuts.
I wasn’t sure why we needed so many scenes with Hoffman using his quasi-scientific hypnosis and grilling, to change Phoenix. A little of that goes a long way.
I enjoyed the Amy Adams character, but would’ve liked more on her back story as well. She has one bizarre sex scene with Hoffman that was powerful and interesting. There are a few scenes with Laura Dern that I enjoyed. She’s a devotee that is a little disappointed in Hoffman’s latest book.
I’m also not sure about the motivations of Hoffman’s son (Jesse Plemons, who looks an awful lot like Hoffman), who tells Phoenix early on “My dad just makes this stuff up as he goes.” Yet later in the film, he’s still working with his dad.
Before this movie, I would’ve said that if Paul Thomas Anderson started a cult, I would consider joining. After this movie, if he showed up at my door wearing a black tie and holding a book in my hand…I might only spend a few minutes talking to him.
I’m hoping he mixes things up a bit better for his next project. We don’t need all the desert shots he likes, or the father/son mentoring thing he often does, or religious leaders.
This movie is an ambiguous and ambitious mess, although highly thought-provoking.
They tell you not to drink and drive, or get a tattoo while drunk. You should also avoid getting on a boat and joining a cult.
This movie gets 2 ½ stars out of 5.