No movie has been more keenly anticipated by cinephiles in 2012 than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” The filmmaker has been one of cinema’s most exciting new voices for a decade and a half now, but attained a new level of adulation with his last picture, ”There Will Be Blood,” which won awards and topped critical lists the world over five years ago. As such, the genesis and production of “The Master” was avidly followed, not least because the film was long ago said to revolve around a fictionalized surrogate of L. Ron Hubbard and his ever-controversial Scientology, and because Anderson had shot the film on 70mm film, the first major production to do so since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” in 1996.
One questions whether you could ever live up to the expectations that Anderson has to put up with here, but the filmmaker’s helped matters a little by taking the film on the road for a series of sneak preview screenings around the country, ahead of the official premiere at the Venice Film Festival tonight. So, while the excitement at the press screening this morning wasn’t quite as fevered as it might have been, there was still a hushed anticipation in the build up. In the aftermath, what we were left with is something that shows Anderson’s continued growth as a filmmaker – it’s certainly his most original and distinctive work to date – but also a picture that’s somewhat at odds with itself.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in his first performance since his faux-retirement) is discharged from the navy after VJ day, and proceeds to spend the next several years drifting through a series of jobs. Sex-obsessed and prone to rages, arguably his greatest skill is making potent moonshine on the side, but it’s this hobby that sees him fleeing after a fellow worker is taken ill.
The next morning, he awakes on board a boat en route from San Francisco to New York, via the Panama Canal, and is greeted by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, but above all else, a hopelessly inquisitive man.” Dodd is the founder of something close to (but not quite) a religion, known as the Cause, travelling with his wife (Amy Adams), daughter (Ambyr Childers), son (Jessie Plemons), new son-in-law (Rami Malek), and various other followers, and he takes Freddie under his wing. The younger man becomes a loyal servant of the Cause, but even Lancaster can’t seem to entirely curb Freddie’s self-destructive instincts.
Many of the things you’ve heard or suspected about the film are absolutely correct. Despite stepping away from regular DoP Robert Elswit (who was committed elsewhere) for the first time, Anderson’s film looks phenomenal; replacement cinematographer Mihai Milaimare Jr. truly makes his mark with eye-popping, somewhat nautically color-coded photography that looks especially good projected in 70mm (aided by intricate, reach-out-and-touch it design work). And it sounds fabulous too; Jonny Greenwood’s percussive, unpredictable score might even exceed his astonishing work on “There Will Be Blood.”
Furthermore, Joaquin Phoenix is indeed as titanic as early buzz suggested. Snarling and mumbling, sometimes to the point of inaudibility, Freddie’s clearly haunted by a drunk father and psychotic mother, and by his experiences in war (subtly alluded to without ever being spelled out – he’s a little more lucid and in control in pre-war flashback sequences). Lancaster speaks to him about how man should be seen to be above the animals, and yet Freddie is absolutely a wild animal, impulsive and furious and just smart enough to realize that he’s not very smart at all. It’s a reminder of how fiercely Phoenix’s presence on screen has been missed in the last few years.
But there are plenty of other pleasures in the film that early word skipped over. For one thing, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are certainly in the same league as Phoenix here. The former, reunited with regular collaborator Anderson after missing “There Will Be Blood,” gives what might be a career-best turn as the titular Master. It’s less showy than his Truman Capote, for sure, but from his very first scene, one instantly sees the charisma, the ego and the flaws of the man. Adams, meanwhile, doesn’t get as much to do, but she’s cast beautifully against type as his wife Mary Sue, in public the supportive, folksy, ever-pregnant spouse, in private the Lady Macbeth-ish power behind the throne, and someone who clearly has her husband wrapped around her little finger.
But perhaps the element that’s lingered the most for us, even above the fantastic performances, is the rhythm of the film. Languid and dreamlike (aided by some sequences that may be flashbacks, may be fantasies, or may even be time travel, if Lancaster is to be believed), it’s as hypnotic as the ‘processing’ that’s central to the Cause, until you’re released blinking and dazed into the daylight once the credits roll.
It’s this rhythm (courtesy of editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty), along with a relative sparsity of showy set-piece shots, that make it the most exciting and original film, formally, that Anderson’s made to date. There was a sense in his early work – even “There Will Be Blood,” to a degree – that he was a filmmaker in thrall to his influences (not necessarily a criticism, it should be said), but “The Master” feels like something fresh, something entirely his own, and the start of a new phase in the director’s career.
And yet it ultimately feels (on first viewing at least) like a film to admire (enormously) rather than to cherish, because of the way it hangs together as a whole. It sometimes feels that it's two films – a study of addiction and the traumas of war, and a story of a man who’s created his own religion – thrust together without ever quite gelling. There are interesting things to say on both sides, but we wonder if seeing the Cause through Freddie’s eyes, and Freddie through the Cause’s, was necessarily the best approach.
This is particularly true as Anderson eventually settles on emphasizing a story that he’s already told several times before – that of a father and a son, and it’s this side of things that ultimately feels disappointing. An unsatisfying, extraneous final 20 minutes gives the film a coda that makes it clear that it’s the relationship (dare we say bromance?…) between Freddie and Lancaster that has mostly interested the filmmaker, and it feels like he’s going over old territory. In fact, it's curiously distant, the gut-punch power of "There Will Be Blood" or heart-on-sleeve emotion of "Magnolia" or "Punch Drunk Love" both proving absent.
It may be that further viewings and more reflection sees the film become more narratively, emotionally and thematically satisfying. There are certainly more than enough extraordinary elements in the film, and more than enough complexities and contradictions, than we’ll be seeing it again at the earliest opportunity. Or it may be that another look sees the disappointment at the familiar core of the story deepen. For the moment, we’re simply pleased that the film marks an undeniable progression in the career of one of our most gifted directors. [B]