An unforgiving indictment against religion, as well as a lashing comment on the desperate need for certain people to believe in anything as long as it's something, "The Master" breaks convention while delving into controversial topics that may turn some faith-based viewers off. With writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson at the helm, they should know what they're getting into. The auteur unapologetically travails across subject matter that interests him and that he believes he can make something different out of, and his latest picture is no exception. Short of the ravishing and expansive no-holds-barred pleasures of 1997's porn world exposé "Boogie Nights," the epic-level ingenuity and compassion of his best film, 1999's sumptuously Altmanesque "Magnolia
," and the magical, mystical romantic pleasures of 2002's "Punch-Drunk Love
," Anderson's last two efforts have been altogether lesser worksstuffier, not quite as ambitious, more scattered in their handling of characters, and in short supply of the go-for-broke electricity that his earlier films were conceived with. 2007's "There Will Be Blood
" was a technical masterstroke with a brilliant performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as a widowed father and oil magnate torn apart by his own greed, but the payoff suffered in the shadow of its setup, culminating in a misguided bowling alley attack treated unsavorily as black comedy rather than the heinous tragedy it really was. "The Master" is more tonally secure, but just as narratively gap-toothed and unsatisfying, touching upon themes and figures without exploring them to any notable degree. With all in front of the camera standing at a chilly distance, there's plenty to ponder on the way out of the theater, but nothing to care about on a deeper plane.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a drunk, a pervert, and just about off his rocker when his tour of duty in the South Pacific comes to a close at the same time World War II ends. Did his experiences overseas turn him into the self-destructive mess he is, or were his problems long in development even before he left his girl, Doris, and New Jersey hometown to go serve his country? Following short-lived stints as a department store photographer and a migrant field worker, Freddie wanders into San Francisco one evening and stows away on a wedding boat cruise. When discovered sleeping in one of the rooms, he is welcomed with open arms by the head of the ship and father of the bride, master orator Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the author of a book called "The Cause," and all of the wedding guests are also his fervent followers to the new sense of enlightenment he's founded. His latest project is to try indoctrinating Freddie, a task even more daunting than it sounds as the group eventually make their way to the east coast and Lancaster is briefly arrested for wrongful withdrawal of funds. With the release of his second book, "The Split Saber," approaching, the spoken notion that Lancaster is tweaking his earlier teachings to suit himself in the present is struck down harshly. Either you're with him, or you're against him, and that goes for the wayward Freddie, too.
"The Master" was shot entirely on 70mm film (a practice all but obsolete with the onset of digital production), and the sheer volume of detail Paul Thomas Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. are able to get with their shooting stock, right down to every last strand of hair and facial blemish, is astonishing. It's too bad the picture in question is such an insular one, modest in scale. When the rare vivid landscape or exotic locale arises, however, as in the scenes set on the beaches of the South Pacific, or a remarkable shot of the wedding cruise passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk, they impress mightily. And what of the film itself, beyond the aesthetic glitz? It's an intriguing but increasingly deflating experience, one that runs undernourished and a little stiff, its message pat as it points the finger at the flimsy gullibility inherent in belief systems and the desire for some to find purpose in one's lifeeven if it means buying into a whole lot of hooey. Anderson depicts some of the initial processing Dodd does on Freddie and the ensuing exercises that range from finding different ways to describe the same window to answering honestly a series of piercing rapid-fire questions without blinking, but the core of what "The Cause" is about is never satisfactorily divulged. Glimpses into Lancaster's married life with the forever-pregnant Peggy (Amy Adams) are also just thatglimpsesthe two of them coming off less as a couple and more as business associates with benefits. Who they are underneath their exteriors and what has drawn them to creating this religious order are critical details either left on the cutting room floor or clumsy oversights in the script.
Joaquin Phoenix's return to acting after 2010's ruse of a documentary, "I'm Still Here
" (for which he was robbed of an Oscar nomination), has come not a moment too soon. The breadth of his talent is something the film world needs, so thank goodness his announced retirement and subsequent antics were all a put-on. If anything, they might have been preparation for his role as Freddie Quell, a young man in his thirties who is just barely hanging on to his sanity (or maybe he isn't at all). The zinger, then, is that he still comes off as more level-headed and relatable than Lancaster Dodd, his tirelessly protective wife Peggy, and their respective flock of sheep. As Lancaster, Philip Seymour Hoffman (2011's "Moneyball
") is so commanding he could rattle chandeliers with his voice alone. Beyond that, he's a charmer in public and a quietly simmering lunatic behind closed doors. Is he crazy enough to genuinely believe what he teaches, or is it all a sham? That's a very good question, and the one lingering bit of ambiguity the film leaves wide open. Either way, he's done a sterling job of brainwashing his wife. As the many-faced Peggy, able to go from perky to stern in a split second flat, Amy Adams (2010's "The Fighter
") is underused, getting only a few intense little monologues to rise to the forefront (including a late one where she admonishes Freddie, telling him that their beliefs aren't like fashion, but permanent). Hers is an interesting character, yet one gets the nagging feeling that the film barely scratches the surface of who she is.
There is a striking scene relatively late in the proceedings of "The Master" where Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), a follower of Dodd's who graciously opens her door to him and his family, asks her leader about a key change she's found in his latest book. Instead of "Can you recall...," the question has altered its meaning to ask, "Can you imagine...?" Lancaster's response is sharp, curt, and final, shutting Helen up so fast her head spins. She's never seen againcharacters come and go without notice here, a victim of the script's uneven waysand it's a shame because she stands as the sole figure to question his teachings before she's swept under the rug. As for Freddie, whose life at home passed him by when he was in the war, his decision whether or not to stay with "The Cause" is less based on what he thinks and more to do with whether or not a loose cannon such as himself belongs. "The Master" is a provocative drama, but also a frustrating one. Individual moments spark to life, while the rest of it is akin to a book that's scarcely been read beyond the synopsis on the flap. It all adds up to a 137-minute sit more stodgy than not, a museum piece certain to divide, if not necessarily conquer. What is sorely missing is the radiance, the courage and the spontaneity of Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier features, the man that proved Mark Wahlberg could act, that Adam Sandler was more than just a one-trick pony, and made viewers buy into the possibility that frogs could rain from the sky. Let's hope he's not lost for good.