I appreciate what writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has to offer. The movie looks terrific and features two of the year's best performances, from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Yet The Master is not one of the year's best films. I surprise myself as I type this, because I count Anderson's Magnolia and There Will Be Blood as two of the best films ever made. But with The Master, he doesn't deliver the goods like he did with his past films (which also include Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love).
Phoenix plays Freddie, a troubled veteran who returns from a World War II stint with the Navy a little messed up in the head. He's having trouble finding his place in the world, and he's constantly swigging dangerous alcoholic drinks he makes out of anything he can find in the medicine cabinet or tool shed. He's prone to major mood swings and violence. His relationships and jobs aren't working out, and his drinking is getting him in a lot of trouble.
He winds up as a stowaway on a luxury yacht, where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), leader of The Cause, a cultlike movement with more than a few similarities to Scientology. Dodd takes an immediate liking to Freddie and his crazy alcoholic concoctions. He invites him to stay with his family, which includes his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams).
There's a great tension during the scenes in which Freddie is "processed" by Dodd: He's asked a series of intense questions while he's not allowed to blink, or he's forced to walk back and forth in a room and declare what comes to his mind when doing something as simple as touching a window. Phoenix and Hoffman take these scenes into the stratosphere.
However, the film falters in a number of scenes that feel, dare I say, badly directed. There's a staginess and artificiality that makes them stilted. I especially disliked many of the moments featuring the usually reliable Adams, whose character feels like it is being shoehorned into the movie. Her moments don't flow with the film.
I also got a sense of déjà vu, as if the film were a There Will Be Blood retread in spots. This is due in part to the soundtrack from Jonny Greenwood, who also did the music for Blood. The films feature similar, percussion-based sounds, which had me thinking Daniel Day-Lewis could show up at any minute and cave in the side of Phoenix's head with a bowling pin.
Phoenix, his face gnarled with anguish, makes an impressive return to narrative filmmaking after the crazy experiment that was I'm Still Here. While the film falters from time to time, he never does, and I fully expect him to be in Oscar contention. He has a moment in a prison cell that shows he's an actor who will throw his entire being into a performance.
As for Hoffman, he's his typical genius self, portraying Dodd as a superintelligent yet highly unstable man. Freddie and Dodd share a tendency to overreact, and the two actors portray this with a ferocity that is scary.
See the film for Phoenix and Hoffman. They are epic, and it's too bad the film itself doesn't go deep enough with its narrative. The Master is a relationship movie, and little more. Those looking for a stinging indictment of organized religion, and more specifically Scientology, are bound to be disappointed. Those looking for a piece of work comparable to Anderson's best will be crushed.