It’s about damn time that I got around to seeing this one. Released last September, The Master has racked up piles of acting nominations and enjoyed a healthy amount of critical if not necessarily commercial success (the film only made back about half of its $32 million budget in the domestic box office). Nevertheless, if you were to have me list the most disagreed-upon film of 2012 I would not hesitate to name The Master as the front runner of that category. As you can see in the reviews below, there appears to be no such thing as middle ground on this movie; those who have seen it have either loved it or hated it. Based on descriptions I’ve heard from people who had seen it, I guessed that I would end up falling into the latter group. While the lack of any real plot prevents me from fully exalting the film, the sheer strength of the Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances make The Master one of the most stirring (if not necessarily exciting films) of 2012.
A Naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Aaaaaand that’s about it. There are a lot of great character confrontations and things happen left and right, but nothing in the film follows any sort of course. It doesn’t build towards any sort of climactic event or revelation, it simply keeps going until the credits start rolling almost out of nowhere. I will at least say though that I wasn’t nearly as bothered by the length as some people have been.
With a cast like this, you’d expect the acting to be spectacular and you wouldn’t be disappointed.
Joaquin Phoenix has built up a reputation for himself outside of his on screen appearances as, let’s say… eccentric. Regardless of what you think of the man though, you have to give him some respect for the amount of devotion to a role you can feel from him in any movie he’s ever been in. Freddie Quell is no exception, though I do feel like Phoenix’s real-life imbalances lent themselves favorably to the character. Quell is a great many things; he’s a drunk, a sexual deviant, a simple minded buffoon and much more, but more than anything he is unbalanced and unpredictable. He varies between states of strong resolve and complete vulnerability as he is stripped emotionally bare by The Master, only to be eventually forced to question everything he has become.
Amy Adams gives a very stern performance which does a lot to shirk her usual character type of the pretty, soft-spoken, naive little redhead we know from films like Doubt and Julie & Julia. As the wife of The Master himself, I thought the dynamic between Adams and Hoffman was very interesting. While The Master is the obvious leader and the inspiration for the entire movement, Peggy is the one who brings fire and brimstone to the proceedings. She repeatedly criticizes Lancaster for his soft treatment of his “enemies” and his favorable views of Freddie, culminating in one sexually explicit scene that gives the feeling that she has almost as much influence over The Master as he has over his followers.
More than all of the others, however, Hoffman absolutely shines in this role and in my opinion deserves the Oscar he is nominated for this year. The Master is an absolutely fascinating character, who combines the well-spoken cerebral voice of a scholar with the passion and temper of an Evangelist Preacher. For the bulk of the film, he is the voice of calm and reason, chastising Freddie when he deals with dissenters physically and calling it “animal behavior”. At the same time, his composed exterior is slowly drawn back through several scenes in which he finally loses his cool and reveals how human he truly is. The comparisons with L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology are not stated here, but they are everything but. Combined with the recent allegations of prolonged physical abuse members of the church have endured at the hands of their past and present leadership, it can be easily assumed the character of The Master was closely based around his Scientologist counterpart.
Perhaps I should have mentioned this before, but this is my first P. T. Anderson film. I’ve heard things about his preferred writing style (i.e. the milkshake monologue in There Will Be Blood), and from what I gather a lot of those elements are present here. There are more than a few off the wall speeches that leaves you with absolutely no idea what The Master is talking about, but I suppose that fits in with the idea that a cult leader can say just about anything and have it be treated as profound wisdom. From my point of view, the strongest aspects of the writing showed in the exchanges between Freddie and The Master, specifically the “Don’t Blink” scene I mentioned in the title. The slow breaking down and “domestication” of Freddie by The Master is absolutely riveting, even though it’s not exactly the most relatable of experiences.
The Verdict: 7.5/10 – Superior
+ Truly outstanding performances from Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams
+ Beautiful cinematography and sound editing
+ Provides and intriguing take on cult mentality
– No semblance of a plot, ends very abruptly and unsatisfyingly
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Andy Watches Movies: 4/5
Cinematic Katzenjammer: 8.0/10
Cinematic Corner: 75/100
The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5
Strangers at a Cinema: [Highly Recommend]
Fast Film Reviews: 2/5
Paragraph Film Reviews: 3/10
*Average computed by converting all scores not bracketed into a 10 point score. Letter grades are converted using the GPA system to give a score out of 4.