Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line) is a socially maladjusted, sexually obsessed, ex-Navy man with a family history of insanity who’s having trouble adjusting to post-service life. His only consistent talent is as an alcohol alchemist, mixing his own hard liquor concoctions out of paint thinner and other random ingredients. This is the skill that endears him to charismatic author Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moneyball), who’s currently championing his philosophies as the foundation of a new religion. Freddie becomes part of Dodd’s inner circle and is soon adopted as patient zero for The Cause to see if its restorative techniques can help even the most volatile personality. Soon, Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, The Muppets), perceives Freddie as pulling the organization down and the battle for loyalties begins.
Let it be known that I am a Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I thought Magnolia was a masterpiece and Punch Drunk Love was outstanding. I wasn’t a huge fan of There Will Be Blood, I thought it felt less like a movie than it did an overly-long staring contest that I kept losing scene by scene, but I recognize the wonderful performances in it. So when I saw the early publicity for The Master, I was worried it was going to be more of the same. The camerawork and editing pace of The Master is closer to There Will Be Blood then Anderson’s early work. He seems to have lost interest in pushing his characters forward with a beautifully restless camera, and is content to move at their speed, more often on three static legs than on a dolly or rail system. However, the screenwriting in The Master moves like crazy. Every scene is filled with either quiet, gnawing tension or explosive confrontations. It’s mesmerizing.
Acting. That’s what you’re going to be hearing about with this one. The buzz is already there. It’s starting to feel like I’m going to have a hard time writing a review between now and Christmas without having to mention the Oscar buzz surrounding a movie. Phoenix is a force of nature in this thing and you watch as over the course of the picture he tries to battle what appears to be an internal hurricane. Hoffman finally takes center stage in a P. T. Anderson picture and he doesn’t ease up for a second. He might get relegated to Best Supporting Actor territory, but this is a leading man role and every bit as compelling as what Phoenix is up to. Of course, it also goes without saying that when you shoot extended dialogue scenes in close-ups using 65mm film stock (IMAX’s little brother, about twice the size of regular film stock), people are forced to pay attention to every nuance of a performance, but both leads were up to the task.
Filmgoers beware; this is a very vulgar and uncomfortable film. The language is beyond coarse and Freddie’s sexual obsession manifests itself constantly and very…nakedly. But it’s the kind of internal movie we hardly ever see and that makes it hard to ignore. I’d rank it with Anderson’s best, and if you’re a fan like me, you know that’s no small accomplishment.
My personal opinion: The WORST date movie ever made, but very compelling. If you have no desire to see it, you’ll still see plenty of clips come Oscar time. My prediction: Three performance categories, cinematography, and director, at least. —Jake Jarvi