The Master, the new picture from Paul Thomas Anderson. To my knowledge it seemed to have been met with universal acclaim and I set out to see it in 70mm at Seattle's legendary Cinerama with reasonably high hopes.
What I watched was a spectacularly attractive piece of visual filmmaking, one performance that is pretty much perfect - but a work that falls short of the mark in delivering the complete package. It's worth seeing The Master. But their are a few downsides - and if you know you're not imaging them it might be easier to see the picture without constantly doubting yourself. My inaccurate belief that the film was a lock for favorite critical film of the year confused me as I wondered just what the heck Joaquin Phoenix was saying, if there was a back-story explaining why I should give a rip about Phoenix's character Freddie and whether I was just tired or if it was the case that the last 45 minutes of the picture just drifted off into it's own private world without me. A bit of internet research after made me realize I'm not entirely along in that assessment. Though still enough of a minority to retain my hipper than though attitude. ;-)
I'll assume no one is still thinking that The Master is a feature length origin story treatment of the character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The new opus from Anderson tells the tale of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) a PSTD suffering ex-Navy seaman with a serious alcohol problem. Specifically of his life post Navy and his interaction with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a cult leader and Master of the title. Over the first part of the film we get a sense of Freddie as he's discharged from the service after World War II, takes and loses a series of jobs for unhinged behaviors and concocts beverages laced with rocket fuel, paint thinner and other none too subtle mixers. After poisoning a farmhand his flight finds him stowing away on Lancaster's borrowed yacht as it embarks along the Panama canal route to the east coast.
Lancaster takes a shine to Freddie, with the younger man becoming fiercely protective of his elder. Over the course of the voyage Freddie is "treated" by Dodd via a series of interrogations that one would guess are references to Scientologist auditing sessions. But the specific affiliation of The Master is really besides the point. Lancaster Dodd is an extremely charismatic personality whose aggressive oratorical skills are seductive to many. We get the obligatory angry denial of the non-believers and the cult set-pieces one needs to establish the closed world of Dodd's group. Lancaster's followers worry about Freddie's behavior and possible damage to the group. Dodd himself seems more amused and taken in by Freddie and acts mostly unconcerned. Freddie himself struggles with (presumably) his past in the war and the one woman he maybe actually loved. This isn't a film about explicit resolution, motivations or any of those other prosaic things. You'll leave wondering what happens next, and what is real and what was Freddie's fantasy. But in the end my main question was did I really care to think that much further about the characters. Beyond how Hoffman seems like a shoe-in for a best actor nominee.
Where The Master shines is Hoffman's performance and the film's look. Shot in 70mm and with an incredible framing of bodies and faces Anderson has produced a piece of stark beauty. There's not a scene I can recall which doesn't force the brain to wonder at the complexity of what's onscreen - the camera itself becoming a true part of each actor's performance. Hoffman owns the film as Lancaster Dodd - not chewing up the screen in some over the top way but portraying a gregarious, twisted genius in a way that sucks you in. He's at home in the role in a way that's borderline scary and is the single best reason to see this film.
Phoenix brings a physical interpretation to Freddie that pounds you over the head with the "this man is broken" metaphor. The character at times moves as though he has a physical disability and wears a scrunched up scowl on his face throughout. We learn little of Freddie's time at war - so perhaps he is suffering physical injuries as well. Phoenix doesn't limit him mangling of his character's body to just outside appearances and gait. Freddie's spoken communication is challenging as well - producing even in a theater with great acoustics roughly unintelligible dialog at least a quarter of the time. Freddie is obsessed with drinking, sex and being a disruptive influence. But that's more from his actions than his words - never since The Wire has an English language piece needed sub-titles so badly. I kid of course - presumably the hard to decipher nature of his language is intended and part of the complexity he has interacting with the other characters onscreen.
Given the limited backstory and his behavior, Freddie is very, very difficult to like. Intellectually he's the victim of the piece in part. The juxtaposition of the extremely likeable but non-innocent Dodd is interesting - and perhaps we're intended to see them as different sides of a broken man and what can come of it. Unfortunately just at the point in the film where one might guess that their relationship would become a deeper focus The Master sort of wanders off in a random direction. It's still visually interesting, but there's a good 45 minutes of this cinematic wandering where scenes don't really advance the story and little new is revealed.
I enjoy a complex, confusing and beautiful story as much as the next guy. Perhaps more - but in the end the inscrutable nature of The Master combined with the Freddie character's limited dimension as written left me wanting. Likely I'm just being greedy - the performance by Hoffman and Anderson's composition is more than worth the price of admission. If you're going to see it do so in a theater - the immersive grandeur of the large screen is the only way to go with this one. But if you don't absolutely love it just don't wonder if it's completely you. There are a lot of data points out there to suggest otherwise.