I don’t know when I’ve been more confounded watching a film as I was with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It’s a bit like the philosophy espoused by the title character: it sounds great in the abstract, but when you look at it closely it’s a bunch of hooey.
Anderson for me has been a hit-and-miss director. Loved Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, hated Punch-Drunk Love, was meh about Magnolia. This film is better than Punch-Drunk Love, but not by much. It’s a bore, it’s bewildering, and it has one of the most irritating performances I’ve seen ever seen.
The film begins on a South Seas island at the end of World War II. Sailors are cavorting on the beach, but one of them just doesn’t seem right. He’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and when the other men make a woman out of sand, he humps and finger-bangs it. Then he jerks off into the ocean.
The scene has a languid sensuality that reminded me of The Thin Red Line, and much of the film reminds me of Terence Malick–there’s a kind of cosmic significance to it, if one can figure out what the hell is going on. Phoenix ends up in VA hospital, and when he takes a Rorschach test he thinks all of the ink blots are genitalia. For some reason he is released, and gets a job as a department store photographer, but his rage is too much to hold a job. For this reason he also loses a job as a cabbage picker.
Serendipitously (or perhaps not) he is found destitute by the crew of a yacht being used by an author named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He has all sorts of titles and pronouncements, and takes a shine to Phoenix, for no discernible reason, except that he admires Phoenix’s talent as an amateur mixologist, making booze out of products like photo developing fluid and Lysol. Phoenix, completely unmoored, becomes part of the “Master’s” retinue, learning something called “the Cause,” which involves past-live regression and all sorts of other psychological quackery.
What we have here is what we had in There Will Be Blood–a facsimile of a father-son relationship. As Daniel Day-Lewis and his adopted son ultimately came to be disappointed with one another, so will the relationship in The Master curdle, but the reasons aren’t precisely clear. For much of the movie I couldn’t grasp the central core of the movie–what drew the two together? Sure, Phoenix needs a father and Hoffman needs a son (his own son, Jesse Plemons, thinks his father just makes everything up). But there’s no connection between the two. In fact, Amy Adams, playing Hoffman’s wife, speaks for the audience when she tries to get him to give up on Phoenix, as being too late to be helped.
The film looks great. The photography, by Mihai Malamaire Jr., is Oscar-worthy, with some stunning scenes of both sea and desert. The production design is terrific as well, giving the film an authentic post-war look. But I fidgeted the whole way through. There are too many random scenes of bizarreness, such as when Phoenix looks up on a party and visualizes all the women naked, of when Adams reads to him from a dirty book. Half the film is spent in a WTF mindset.
Hoffman, who plays against type here by being totally self-confident and in command, is excellent, though. The only scene I found compelling was when he asks Phoenix questions in what’s called “processing.” Hoffman’s control is absorbing, but later, he will lose his cool when others question his theories, such as at a dinner party when he reveals that the Earth has been around for trillions of years. By the way, past lives are bullshit, and here’s why–there are more people alive now than have ever died in the history of mankind, which means there’s not enough past lives to go around, let alone having eight or nine of them. If we were reincarnated, some of us come from lesser life forms, like grasshoppers or squirrels.
The film’s black hole is Phoenix, in one of the worst performances outside of an Ed Wood movie. It’s as if he were extending the performance art joke of his recent “retirement.” He walks with a slouch, talks through his teeth and out of the side of his mouth, and appears to be in a state of perpetual agitation. He’s supposed to be a short fuse–he will assault anyone who defies Hoffman– but I just couldn’t take it. There’s such a thing as good acting and then there’s a lot of acting–sometimes the two are mistaken for each other by people who don’t know anything about acting. He’s also too old for the part–Phoenix is 38 and looks older, and his great love is a 16-year-old girl back home. Their scene together is creepy.
I’m mystified why this film is getting pretty good reviews. I don’t usually question critic’s motives, but it seems to me like there’s an “emperor’s new clothes” thing going on here. The film has all the makings of a classic, except that it’s just no good. I hope I never have to see it again.
My grade for The Master: D+.