There are certain films, outstanding, quality, great, amazing, incredible films, that do not play well with the masses. Critics, filmmakers and other members of the industry love them but the average moviegoer does not. If you only have the opportunity to spend your hard earned money at the theater once a week (or a month, or a year…), more often than not you want to see the big hit, the blockbuster, or the date-y movie that you can talk about with your friends. And that’s fine. No, that’s more than fine; that’s as it should be. As a huge fan of popcorn/blockbuster films, I greatly appreciate the near-universal appeal of the movies that value entertainment above all else. That said, I also have a deep seeded love for independent cinema and the small-scale pictures that are likely to dominate award season. As such, I have to walk a line here when it comes to recommending a given movie to the average moviegoer, to which this space is dedicated to. With that in mind, let me say this up front: you’re not going to like The Master.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) spends the years following World War II moving from job to job, always unhappy and always running into trouble wherever he goes. A veteran with some serious mental problems and a righteous alcohol addiction, the only thing Freddie really seems good at is making hooch, hideously strong, borderline toxic hooch. Freddie’s life changes, however, when he stows away aboard a boat bearing Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his family up the Eastern Seaboard. Dodd is a doctor, a philosopher, and a writer, among other things, who has created an appealing and controversial set of beliefs for himself and his growing base of followers. Dodd takes his religion (though it is never referred to as such) and embarks on a grass roots campaign of sorts to spread his good word and accumulate the power that comes along with it. For some reason, Dodd takes a liking to Freddie and sets him up as a kind of lackey, a position that perturbs the rest of Dodd’s followers, including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). But as Dodd and the group struggle to attain worldwide relevance, Freddie’s individual challenges prove to be too difficult to manage.
On the surface, I think that paragraph properly encapsulates the plot of The Master. It goes much deeper than that, though. This is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (not to be confused with the hack, Wes Paul Anderson of Resident Evil fame) fictionalized version of the rise of L. Ron Hubbard and his cult-like religion, Scientology. It is both an account of how the words and ideas of great men can be used for evil and an indictment of this particular religion itself as well as (perhaps?) belief systems altogether. That’s my analysis, anyway, though I am completely certain that there are levels to this film that I missed entirely; maybe lots of levels. I have a feeling that if you read a dozen reviews for this film, you’d find a dozen different ideas about what The Master really is about. In layman’s terms, this is “a real thinker” and it is as incredibly smart as it is maddeningly complex.
What is not complex, however, is the quality of the acting contained within The Master. Every once in a while I see a movie and come away fully believing that I have just seen the performance that would eventually win Best Actor/Actress. It happened last year with George Clooney in The Descendants and while Clooney ended up losing out to the buzz saw that was The Artist and Jean Dujardin, I stand by my assertion: Clooney was magnificent in that film. Given my track record, this will probably be the equivalent of putting a curse on these fine actors but I’ll go ahead and say it: I would be very surprised if anyone tops what Phoenix and Hoffman have done here. Hoffman’s performance is what I would consider to be his most charismatic and magnetic one to date and those qualities come incredibly naturally to an actor who I’ve never really considered to be either. Dodd is powerful and charming but it is his barely-contained rage and an edge of desperation that makes the character stand out. If you will pardon the pun, it is a masterful performance. Adams, too, hits her mark with extreme precision, embodying the old saying, “Behind every great man there stands a great woman.” Her character never receives the attention given to Freddie or Dodd but it is no less important and should garner Adams a load of award attention.
But it is no slight to Hoffman or Adams when I say that their performances pale in comparison to that of Phoenix who WILL be the Best Actor winner when the Oscars roll around (sorry for jinxing you, Joaquin). I have no idea what Phoenix’s real mindset is at this point; I’m not sure if anyone does, including Phoenix himself. His off-the-wall retirement, subsequent foray into hardcore rap, and years-later confession that the entire thing was a bit is one of the weirder Hollywood stories of the last decade and has left me with a great deal of confusion as to what to actually expect from the man. But the fact of the matter is he is a supremely talented actor who is capable of a historically great performance. This is that performance. One scene in particular, a long shot in which Dodd questions Freddie for a full three minutes while the latter refuses to allow himself to blink, should be enough to get Phoenix’s name on the nominee list.
Freddie has so many issues at work within his body and mind and Phoenix is able to display each of them in exquisite detail. His brutal alcohol dependency, his low IQ and lower self-esteem, his sexual deviance, his war-ravaged body and even further damaged mind, his hatred of authority and his secret craving of that which he hates, all are brought forth with a perfect blend of force and subtlety. Freddie is an incredibly rich character with which to work to be sure but I’m not sure there’s a singly actor in Hollywood who could better embody him than Phoenix, save for perhaps Daniel Day Lewis. Phoenix even transformed his body into a gaunt, hauntingly sickly appearance that reminded me of Christian Bale’s transformation in The Machinist. This is truly a powerhouse performance that will stick with you long after you exit the theater.
My one complaint about The Master, and ultimately the issue that will prevent it from being an audience-friendly film, is that I felt it lacked a purpose. Or maybe it’s that I simply can’t grasp the purpose. There is no questioning its pedigree; I honestly can’t imagine that I will see another film this year that is as well-made as The Master is. The camera work is magnificent, the shot selection is unbelievably good, and the score (by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood) drives the film flawlessly. But from a purely storytelling perspective, I’m not sure what the goal is. In this way, The Master is very similar to last year’s Tree of Life but whereas this film works much better as a character study and a platform for exquisite acting, Tree of Life reached me personally on a near-spiritual level that The Master lacks. That doesn’t keep it from being a tremendous film, however, and one that will certainly find a spot among the year’s best with critics, filmmakers, and cinema junkies alike. But if you’re looking for a good date movie, a fun night out with the guys, or a nice family outing, I would suggest literally any other movie that is currently available to you. This is not the droid you’re looking for.