The last time we saw acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson was in 2007 with his sensational drama “There Will Be Blood”. With it he solidified his position as a film critic’s favorite. Now he’s back with his next movie “The Master”. As with every other feature film Anderson has made, he both wrote and directed this audacious drama that can sometimes be completely captivating and other times utterly frustrating. There are some award worthy performances and loads of ambition, just as you would expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson feature. But just as there were moments where I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, there were also times when the story seemed to bog down in the deliberate pacing and slight self-indulgence that keeps this from being a true classic. Nonetheless Anderson presses all the right critics buttons so this will be a contender come awards season.
No one can deny Anderson’s filmmaking skills. “The Master” looks every bit of an epic, landmark film. There are a number of scenes that stand out due to their framing and camera work alone. Anderson uses several amazing tracking shots sometimes shifting focus three or four times while still maintaining a single fluid shot. He also uses several fantastic locations and captures them with his stylish and precise camera work. I also have to mention the way he recreates America in 1950 both narratively and visually. The wardrobes, hairstyles, furnishings, etc. all work perfectly right down to the smallest details. Anderson takes no shortcuts on selling the audience on the period and that’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to attach yourself to the story.
It’s in this 1950 America that we are introduced to Freddie Quell. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix who gives the performance of his career. While not as breathtaking as Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”, Phoenix is magnetic portraying a man emotionally scarred from his time in World War 2, or at least that’s what I presume. Freddie’s life is in shambles. He’s a raging alcoholic who resorts to drinking his own concoctions made from paint thinner and any other chemical he can get his hands own. He also has a twisted sex disorder that pops up here and there. His alcoholism shows to be a burden that’s destroying his life and in turn plays an important part in the film. On the other hand, his sex addiction felt terribly underwritten and only contributed by adding a handful of uncomfortable scenes that quite frankly I could have done without. But as I said, Phoenix is brilliant and there’s no way he should be denied an Oscar nomination for this bold performance.
Freddie ends up crossing paths with a charismatic leader of a group called “The Cause” named Lancaster Dodd (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour-Hoffman). Dodd is a self-proclaimed philosopher and intellectual with a steady and devoted group of followers. He also has a way with words and Freddie is drawn to Dodd and his movement. Dodd takes a special liking to Freddie at one point calling him his guinea pig but clearly growing more fond of him later. Dodd is able to suppress Freddie’s mental issues to the point where Freddie begins to buy into his teachings. But his inner turmoil resurfaces on several occasions making him more and more conflicted.
The story often moves with an amazing rhythm and Phoenix and Hoffman share some mesmerizing scenes together. But for such a hyped picture, I was surprised to see the overall lack of plot. I mean “The Master” features some of the best scenes you’ll see in the theaters this year, but honestly, there’s not a lot that happens in the long running time. But a bigger problem with “The Master” is that for the entire film Anderson keeps the audience at arm’s length from what we are seeing. We’re never allowed to fully get to know the characters who truly are the driving forces behind the entire picture. Anderson wants us to do a lot of guesswork and come to our own conclusions. But for me, a little less ambiguity and more intimacy with the characters would have been a big plus.
I don’t mean for this review to have such a negative tone. There are some really good things to like about “The Master”. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is about as good as you will find and it really shines here. The movie looks and feels right at home in post-World War 2 1950 and the cinematography will blow you away. The film is also helped by tremendous performances from Phoenix and Hoffman and I didn’t even talk about Amy Adams’ strong work. Expect to hear all of their names when the Oscar nominations are announced. But while Anderson’s story is good, it doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other pictures particularly “There Will Be Blood”. It’s fascinating to watch these characters but I couldn’t help but want more. That combined with a few pacing issues and a couple of scenes I could have done without keep this from being the Best Picture frontrunner that many are touting it as.