Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman take turns presenting performances very much For Your Oscar Consideration in The Master, a very long drama about a World War II vet and his run-in with a cult leader.
Freddie Quell (Phoenix) returns from the Pacific theater a hot mess. Even as the end of the war was being announced over the radio, he was draining the fuel from rockets to make his hooch. After a stint in a military mental hospital, he attempts to make it as a department store photographer. But hooking up with one of the store’s models and drinking the photo processing fluid starts a destructive process that ends with his getting in a fistfight with a customer. Then we see him doing farm work but eventually being run off by the migrant laborers when they think he’s poisoned someone with another batch of bad drink. From there, he stows away on a boat where he sees the passengers having some sort of party. When he awakens, he’s taken to Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader of this group. It turns out that the boat trip is for his daughter’s wedding and Dodd is the leader of something called The Cause (and he is called Master by some of his followers). Freddie, hungry perhaps to belong and finding himself drawn to the charismatic Dodd, decides to latch on to The Cause, undergoing “processing” and training that looks like randomly thought-up college psych-major exercises.
Which indeed they may be. While Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), is fanatically devoted to him and The Cause, Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) is fairly certain his dad is just making everything up. Freddie’s response whenever the genuineness of The Cause is questioned is to beat the questioner up. He may be trying to elevate himself with The Cause’s methods, but he still has addictions to quick rage and to booze.
Exceptionally strong booze — paint thinner is an ingredient in one concoction. For a while, booze creates a kinship between Dodd and Freddie, much to the dismay of the no-nonsense Peggy.
So: The Master is a contemplative movie that gives Hoffman and Phoenix the room to explore their characters and not just play a role but craft layered performances that show us men with flaws and dreams. Or, put another way, The Master is a very long movie where two admittedly good actors (plus the solid Adams) ham it up to such an extraordinary degree you’re surprised that anything aside from their egos can fit on the screen. The movie’s two-plus hours give the actors a lot of time to engage in “actory business” that, were the movie a newspaper column and I the editor, I would be red-lining with vicious glee. Getting into your performance is one thing; puffing up your chest and belting out two hours of ham-ery in support of nothing is just movie filler.
And yes, I feel like behind those big glorious blue-ribbon performances and some truly lovely camera work (saturated colors, sun-dappled locales), The Master offers very little. It’s just so much meandering, a story whose goal seems not to go somewhere or say something but merely to give the actors a place to showboat. Hoffman, Adams and Phoenix do a good job, yes, because they are great actors. But I didn’t once care about the characters or the story or anything beyond the movie just hurrying up and ending already.
In fairness, I am one of very few film critics to feel this way. This movie has received the kind of praise long pretty movies start to get this time of year, when we are in the year’s final quarter and award season buzz begins. Perhaps all of these critics saw a better movie, one where the big “I am Acting here” performances actually worked in service to a plot that is both riveting and affecting. My hope is that if you wind up at The Master, you see that magical version and not the noise-filled, substance-light version I suffered through. B-
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is two hours and 17 minutes long and is distributed by The Weinstein Company.