Big technique, minor story in underwhelming ‘The Master’
There are some astonishing moments early in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, when something really seems to be going on. As the Navy seaman played by Joaquin Phoenix behaves badly just before and after the end of World War II—cooking and drinking lethal alcohol out of whatever fuel is handy, dry-humping a sand sculpture of a nude woman on the beach, laughing inappropriately at the therapists in the VA hospital—the movie seems to have its own wildly original vitality. Then we begin to notice how threadbare the emperor’s clothes really are.
In broad compositions, story structure, and snatches of incidental music, The Master soon starts to feel a lot like Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Once again, he relies on powerhouse acting—here, Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman—to distract the audience away from the lack of substance or meaning or plot in Anderson’s script. As Phoenix’s lost soul and Hoffman’s cult leader go head-to-head—drinking, raging, psyching each other out, or, most alarming, engaging in queasy-making bromance bear hugs—we start to realize that’s all there is to The Master. It’s a dual character study in search of a story.
Freddy Quell (Phoenix) is a horny, alcoholic screw-up who can’t get a grip after the war. Extinguishing his job as a department store portrait photographer with an unprovoked attack on a customer, then driven out of the produce fields by enraged Filipino migrant workers for cooking bad hooch, he hops aboard a luxury yacht leaving San Francisco Bay. There he falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a patriarchal figure with a facade of serenity who leads his large entourage in a belief system called The Cause.
Where Dodd comes from or what exactly he stands for remain elusive. He dabbles in past-life regression, urges his followers to elevate their species above animals (although Quell doesn’t quite get that part, eager to pummel anyone who begs to differ with Dodd’s message), and goes in for mentally abusive “processing” to break down his followers’ resistance. (“Do you ever think about how inconsequential you are?”) Meanwhile, his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) coaches them on proactively attacking their attackers, otherwise “we will never dominate the environment the way we should.”
It would help if we ever had a clue what they were talking about or what they want to achieve. But once volatile Quell meets loony-tunes Dodd (who might break out at any moment into “I Want to Get You On a Slow Boat to China” for no reason), that’s it for plot development. Dodd elevates drunken Quell into his inner circle, to the despair of his family, evidently because his ego requires someone as hopeless as Quell to dominate. But despite the danse macabre between the two of them that lasts the rest of the movie, they never seem to connect with nor enlighten each other in any comprehensible way.
Anderson can get inarticulate rage up onscreen. But, like his characters, he doesn’t know what to do with it. Is he commenting on postwar trauma? The psychology of the cult follower (or leader)? Who knows? No one undergoes any kind of personal transformation or gains any insight, and with no narrative drive to prop up the flaccid story, the movie just lies there, twitching.
Moments of apparent dramatic intensity turn out to be fueled by Jonny Greenwood’s jittery, propulsive music, coupled with the built-in suspense of wondering how long Phoenix can maintain the same bent, gnarled stance of pent-up aggression. (Answer: for the entire movie. Phoenix’s bravura performance deserves some kind of endurance award, at least. So do we.)
Anderson has paid attention to physical scope; he shot in 65 mm, using lots of large vistas of deserts, beaches, canyons. He’s adept at long, complex tracking shots, full of perfectly choreographed action. Yet the simplest mechanics of storytelling often elude him, like the improbable moment when an usher brings in a cradle telephone (on what must be the world’s longest cord) into a theater balcony during the movie so a patron can take a call.
Anderson doesn’t seem to care if something makes sense as long as it looks cool, just as he doesn’t care if The Master adds up to anything, so long as it has the appearance of profundity.
★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A Weinstein Co. release. Rated R. 137 minutes.