Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running Length: 144 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career. Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up. A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling. Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star. Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.
It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.
There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work. The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix. (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained). Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.
Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit. He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease. It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.
As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis. Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen.
Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor. What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one. Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.
I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now. It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here. For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received. I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way.
Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause. Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film. The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.
As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome. I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped. It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.