bill bodkin looks at the latest from the mind of paul thomas anderson…
Plot: After returning from the Second World War, having witnessed many horrors, a charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman) creates a faith based organization in an attempt to provide meaning to his life. He becomes known as “The Master.” His right-hand man (Joaquin Phoenix), a former drifter, begins to question both the belief system and The Master as the organization grows and gains a fervent following.
This plot summary is the one that can be found on The Master’s IMDB page. However this is not the same story that one could take away after sitting through the latest epic examination of Americana from auteur/director Paul Thomas Anderson.
The film is a look at the American cult, many say a thinly veiled jab at Scientology, as well as the the life of the post-traumatically afflicted soldier. However, there’s a lot of inferences, guesses, theories and postulations that you, the moviegoer are almost expected to make as the credits roll. Why? Because the film doesn’t seem to have an exact point to it. When you watched PT Anderson’s previous works — Boogie Nights or Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, there as an ending to the story; a point that was being made; some sort of tangible realization that characters made. In The Master, it’s all very “maybe this is how it goes” or “could this be the point?” It’s a film that’s open to much interpretation and debate and in the end it’s a bit frustrating.
However, as silly as this may seem, the story of The Master, isn’t all that important as it merely serves as a vehicle for truly brilliant and commanding acting performances. Like There Will Be Blood, The Master is about dynamic acting and strong character set against a beautiful backdrop and supplemented by a vibrant soundtrack.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, as “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd, delivers an absolutely intoxicating performance. He’s everything a cult leader/cult of personality should be — he’s fatherly and merry, devious and brilliant, vulgar and comforting. From his befreckled brow to his slicked back graying coif to the “let me tell you a story” grandfatherly mustache, Dodd is your father, your grandfather, your favorite uncle, the teacher who touched your life. He embodies every warm feeling you’ve had towards a male figure of authority and that’s what makes him the perfect cult leader. He’s able to seduce you with his flights of fancy no matter how ridiculous they sound. And Hoffman’s performance, like Dodd’s teachings and speeches, suck you in. The movie literally has to remind you that this man is nothing more than a scam artist, failed author, hack mystic and complete BS artist with such force and impact because the character and the actor giving the performance are just so loveable and convincing. You literally believe this man, who is, as the film says “making it up as he goes along,” is a genuinely good human being and not a fraud.
Hoffman’s performance may be his best to date (in full disclosure, I’ve never seen Capote), and one has to hope his performance gets tossed into the Supporting Actor Category, as no one will probably touch Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Hoffman should be lauded and honored with awards until he has to build as house just hold the awards for The Master. His work is sheer brilliance.
Not to be overlooked is Joaquin Phoenix. The role of the alcoholic, no-filter drifter Freddie Quell was made for Phoenix, an actor, who post-Oscar, seemingly went off the reservation and went from being held in thespianic esteem to a general thought that he lost his mind. To play such an odd character is the perfect reintroduction to the masses for Phoenix. He plays this role so convincingly, that you forget you’re watching an actor. From Quell’s hunched posture, to his Scotch-soaked eyes, to his hair trigger, Phoenix is pitch perfect. The role of Quell is one that could easily be played way over the top — the physical ticks and slurred speech combined with his violent outbursts are the stuff of Overactors 101, but Phoenix has such poise and such conviction with ever move he makes, it’s remarkable.
Almost lost in the acting shuffle is Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife. The role could’ve been fleshed out a little more and given more screentime, but Adams makes the most of it and she continues to put herself on the map as one of the premier dramatic actresses of our generation. It’s funny, Adams seems to be mirroring her former co-star Meryl Streep’s current career of being successful in the lighthearted comedic world while maintaing her place as a truly fantastic dramatic actress.
These three performances alone really overshadow the narrative problems of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. You can really just sit and marvel at the performances of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams and forget about the plot. If the narrative had been stronger and more cohesive, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say this film was a lock for the Oscar for Best Picture.