The Master (2012) / Drama

MPAA rated: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Length: 138 min.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons, Amy Ferguson, Ambyr Childers
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Review published February 5, 2013

The Master 2012 Joaquin PhoenixSet mostly in 1950, Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Ladder 49) stars as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic and Navy vet of WWII suffering from rage-fueled psychological torment, who goes on a strange odyssey where he can't find and maintain a job to ending up stowing away on a yacht 'commanded' by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman, The Ides of March), who finds him but allows him to stay (to some extent, due to Quell's ability to mix good drinks, and also a nagging suspicion that they've met before, though Dodd can't recall where).  Dodd is in the midst of working on his own system, dubbed The Cause, of what he feels are scientific beliefs involving past lives, going back through the beginning of time, and how they've shaped present personality traits and subconscious memories in people, and will soon publish more works on the system to a small but growing segment of the public who see the system as a sort of religion. 

Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) writes and directs The Master, which some (many who haven't seen the film) see as a commentary L. Ron Hubbard and his notions of Scientology, but others see beyond this as how belief systems in general can both help and hurt afflicted people, particularly those who suffer psychological ailments that manifest themselves into physical ones.

While The Master does struggle to maintain a consistent narrative tone and delivery, it is often quite mesmerizing as a collection of interesting scenes.  The characterizations as well as the actors' performances along with them are so fine tuned that one eventually stops trying to figure out just what the film is ultimately supposed to be about and just enjoys the ride for what it is.  Symbolism abounds, not the least of which is of how Dodd and the members of the cause congregate in Phoenix, where their beliefs will "rise from the ashes" like that mythological bird.  Perhaps no coincidence that Anderson chose to cast a man named Phoenix in the lead role.  Another scenes involves a motorcycle that is to be ridden simply to a desert destination of ones choosing and back, and while the confident Dodd performs this without a hitch, Quell seems to lose his way when left on his own, despite the easy instruction, very indicative of the state of their relationship.

The two best things about the film are the star performances by Phoenix and Hoffman, who command rapt attention whenever they are on the screen, particularly when they share the screen together.  Although Phoenix looks at times to be too old for the role, there is a method to his madness where his physical stature also resembles a troubled, aged man, as if his constant worries and lack of comfort has manifested itself in an odd physical appearance.  Meanwhile, Hoffman is serious but affable, mostly maintaining his composure while others around him can get a little too unpredictable, especially Freddie.  His sure hand and steady demeanor is like a beacon that Quell is attracted to, but he struggles to fit in because he's a perpetual square peg.  Both would receive Oscar nominations, despite the controversy of the film in the Hollywood industry that may have contributed to its lack of nominations for the film as a whole. 

Richly scored and beautifully shot, The Master continues Anderson's streak of highly ambitious, oddly structured, but brilliantly delivered films that both mystify and reveal in nearly equal measure.   However, don't come in expecting something grand along the lines of There Will Be Blood.  Despite the controversial premise, Anderson seems to be exploring a concept rather than delivering home answers to his themes, as the story ultimately is about one man's journey to potential normalcy, if he's willing to accept someone else's vision that is considered anything but normal.  Although there are some very crass moments during the points when Freddie exhibits his most sociopathic tendencies, there is still an elegance at The Master's core that elevates the complex material into an art form. 
Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo