Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
The Master (2012)
It’s been five years since Paul Thomas Anderson brought us “There Will Be Blood,” a critical success that ended up winning two Academy Awards. With his latest film, “The Master,” there has been controversy swarming around it from the very beginning as many have said that it tells the story of the founding of Scientology, despite the continued denials from those who made it. However, in this critic’s view, that is far less important than whether or not Anderson has been able to put together a compelling film, especially given his fascinating and eccentric filmography.
Anderson’s latest work revolves around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man who has returned home from World War II with no idea what to do with his future. He tries to reintegrate into society by trying his hand at a few professions including photography and field work, but his alcoholism continues to get him into trouble. After poisoning a fellow worker with his homemade booze, Freddie goes on the run, ending up on a ship where a wedding is taking place.
He is brought before the ship’s commander, a man by the name of Lancaster Dodd (aka “Master”) (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a movement known as “The Cause.” Freddie begins to spend time with him and his followers, slowly learning what “The Cause” is about and how Master wants to use it to help humanity. Eventually, a strange bond forms between the two men as Master tries to help Freddie find a place in the world.
I should start off by mentioning that I was one of the few people who was not able to recommend “There Will Be Blood” completely. It features a brilliant performance from Daniel Day-Lewis and an incredible final scene that gives you a glimpse at how good the film could have been, but from a narrative standpoint, it got a bit too stretched out. I mention this only because I ended up having a similar reaction to “The Master.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give mesmerizing performances which will no doubt be given serious Oscar consideration in just a few months. They quite literally carry this film on their shoulders since, without their amazing performances, there wouldn’t really be anything particularly noteworthy about it.
Anderson has tried to fashion a tale about a lost soul who finds a man who wants to help him, but he doesn’t really seem to know where the narrative should go, giving it the feeling that it ends up going nowhere. This also gives it the feeling of being rather empty and directionless, the two words that were at the forefront of my mind throughout the 137-minute film.
Like “Blood,” “The Master” does have a scene or two that stands out as being far more interesting than the rest. Such a scene occurs when Master puts Freddie to a rigorous line of questioning that requires him to answer immediately while not blinking. The line of questioning seems almost random, including questions like “Do you think about your own insignificance?,” “Do you think God will save you?,” and “Have you ever had sex with a family member?” It’s a bizarre scene, but in the hands of these two great actors, it’s quite compelling.
Anderson has certainly done good work before like “Boogie Nights,” a strange tale of the porn industry, and “Magnolia,” a fascinating collection of criss-crossing stories, but unfortunately for “The Master,” it appears that he was just as unclear in his aim as his main character. With his other films, he’s had mostly well-developed stories, which makes the wandering narrative of his latest film seem rather out of place. This makes a big difference when it hinges on two characters who are not all that likeable. Whatever Anderson was trying to say here, it ends up getting lost in the spontaneity of the story.
The film has already been receiving rave reviews from several people, but it looks like it was merely a case of people bowing down at the Anderson Altar a little too quickly as a result of his past work, because this is not the “solidly engrossing” film that is being described. “The Master” merely ends up being a reminder that performances can take a film pretty far, but they can’t make up for poor writing. 2.5/4 stars.