It's already had secret screenings, surprise screenings, and I think it might have played once in the parking lot behind the Ikea in New Haven, Connecticut, but Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" hadn't technically premiered until the Venice Film Festival last weekend. Months of anticipation and sky-high expectations didn't appear to dilute the film's impact; it went over as well with the crowds at Venice as it did in Santa Monica, Chicago, New York, and as the movie on all westbound American Airlines flights from August 15th through the 31st (I kid because I seethe with jealous rage towards those who've seen it).
The most common refrain in this latest batch of "The Master" reviews are glowing notices for star Joaquin Phoenix, returning from the showbiz wilderness to deliver what several critics call one of the finest performances of his career. Attacking the role of a disturbed World War II veteran with the same borderline crazy attention to physical detail he used to turn himself into a reality cinema art project in the underrated "I'm Still Here," Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter says that Phoenix "is profoundly unnerving… In addition to using his eyes in ways that can be both furtive and challenging, the actor screws his mouth back to one side, combining with his upper-lip scar to odd effect, and hunches over insecurely to provide a physical presence of surpassing weirdness." Calling it a "bracing, resplendent, almost hyper-sensitizing" film, McCarthy says "The Master" is "a must-see for serious audiences."
Phoenix's Freddie Quell falls under the thrall of a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has developed a new religion around the theory that life on Earth dates back much further than most scientists believe (at Venice, Anderson confirmed the character is loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard). In The Guardian, Xan Brooks and his colleague Peter Bradshaw see the interplay between Quell and Dodd as a companion piece to Anderson's last film, 2007's "There Will Be Blood." As that film explored the origins of Big Oil, they say in a video review that accompanies Brooks' print critique, "The Master" follows the story of big religion. Rather than simply investigate the beginnings of Scientology, Anderson "probes at the shadows cast by the spotlight of American supremacy" and "identifies a strain of self-doubt in an otherwise triumphant 1950s and paints a compelling picture of a postwar prosperity built on the backs of a confused and traumatized people." The result, Brooks writes, is "a ravishing, unashamedly old-school American classic."
A few critics did feel "The Master" represented a small step backward for Anderson from the heights of "There Will Be Blood" — which is admittedly not the most damning criticism given that film's growing reputation as one of the last decade's few modern classics. Variety's Justin Chang says "The Master" is "neither as explosive nor as enthralling" as the story of oil prospector Daniel Plainview, though he sees both as movies about "a deeply scarred individual who craves a certain form of validation, yet proves mentally and emotionally incapable of receiving it from a community whose own motivations are thoroughly suspect." Screen International's Mark Adams echoed those thoughts in his own review, writing that "The Master" may "lack the sheer brash dramatic bravura" of "There Will Be Blood," while noting that it nonetheless contains "impressive lead performances" from Phoenix and Hoffman.
"The Master" next plays the Toronto Film Festival, followed, my sources tell me, by a surprise 70mm screening after this Sunday's matinee of "The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure" at the Marcus Marc Cinemas in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (note: my sources are the Oogieloves, who have been known to oogielie). After that, the film opens in limited release on September 14th, at which point we'll all get a chance to decide whether to join "The Master"'s cult ourselves.