Director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to theaters with The Master, a tour-de-force performance piece that is unfortunately unsatisfying and tiresome. It is a grand effort. Anderson is really swinging for the fences here. The problem is that it ends up being a bunt instead of a homerun. The Master looks incredible in glorious 70 mm. Anderson's filmmaking skills are tremendous, but I feel he suffers here under his own conceit.
The Master takes place in the years after World War Two. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Navy veteran, Freddie Quell. Freddie is the ape man in purest form. A lover of the basic instincts, he drifts from job to job, trying to get laid, and boozing with hideous concoctions. He happens to sneak on a boat hosting the wedding party of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a self described doctor of medicine, philosophy, nuclear physics, and religion. Dodd is the leader of a movement called The Cause. He takes an interest in Freddie, convinced he can cure the soulless ogre and give him purpose. Dodd has a fiercely dedicated wife and pupil, Peggy (Amy Adams). She's a true believer who is suspicious of Freddie, but not his methods in silencing critics.
The performances in this film are good, especially Joaquin Phoenix. He's hunched over, razor-thin with a gaunt, lifeless expression. He's so chimp-like, I almost expected him to start eating bananas and swing from the trees. Hoffman's counterpart of Lancaster Dodd is filled with narcissism and pomposity. The pair connects in a laborious journey of discovery. Dodd is clearly a fraud, surrounded by people who know it and are just in it for the riches. Freddie Quell, who embraces Dodd because he embraces him, struggles to see if there's anything real to The Cause. Their dialogue is like acting chum, just waiting for the serious actor to take the bait. My problem was that it wears painfully thin after their initial encounters. Scenes between the two drag on. Anderson is in love with these actors and the script to a fault.
The Master attempts to paint a picture of a lost man searching for self in a vast existential landscape. Anderson visually depicts this by cutting in scenes of the ocean and the desert, with the primary characters navigating their way through. It's all very cerebral. After a while I became unfazed. It seemed trite and pretentious. Anderson is aiming for this deep philosophical juxtaposition, but hammers it in by constantly going back to this imagery. He really could have edited down some of these scenes. He wouldn't have lost any meaning to his story and really helped the pacing of the film.
The Master is not without controversy. It's fairly obvious that Anderson's character of Lancaster Dodd and The Cause is referencing L. Ron Hubbard and the roots of Scientology. I have zero qualms with any filmmaker's take on religion, but you may be offended if you are a die-hard Scientologist. Dodd is portrayed as a huckster who's not entirely selfish. My primary fault in this film is how and why Dodd achieves this following. His philosophy and methods are flimsy on purpose. The audience just has to believe that his followers are gullible and he's so charismatic, they follow blindly. This is just stated in the film, never shown or explained. I needed to see this because The Cause is clearly a cult from frame one. Freddie Quell sees this and its plain as day. Anderson needed to enthrall with Dodd. He doesn't and it makes the story unbelievable. I would guess that L. Ron Hubbard had to be magnetic to have started his own religion. Lancaster Dodd is not. This is the weakness in Anderson's script.
I found The Master very difficult to sit through. It seemed to drag on forever. I quickly understood what the characters were and what Anderson was aiming for. Then I had to sit through another two hours of plodding. The Master is similar to Anderson's previous work in that it is detailed, extremely character-driven, and slow developing. The difference is that it doesn't have the entertainment value of Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood. It's more akin to Magnolia, a long, boring character piece that artfully failed.