The Master (2012)
Written/directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
To say that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was the Master would, in this particular case, be a fact, and not just a strongly sensible opinion. Hoffman never settled for simply being great. He strove for perfection, and in “The Master” he came pretty damn close. It’s heartbreaking to think that audiences will never again be able to anticipate a new movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman (excepting the couple he had recently finished filming), but he left the world with performances that we’ll never soon forget. And that, at least, is something worth celebrating.
After serving as a WWII Naval engineer, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) became a PTSD-riddled portrait photographer and cropper until he was driven out of both jobs. Finally, he stumbles upon the Cause, a cultish movement run by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), affectionately called “the Master.” This L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure is a writer and philosopher, but more than anything he wants to further the separation between man and beast. We’re living one of our many lives in this body, so to be truly awakened we must submit ourselves to the Cause. Freddie thinks this is a load of bull, and his immature tantrums don’t allow him to reap the benefits claimed by Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). But can he still be saved? Or is Freddie dragging the Cause down with him?
Shot in beautiful 65mm (the first American feature to do so in over 15 years), “The Master” is as much a visual marvel as any piece of realism I’ve seen in a while. Every detail is accentuated. You feel closer to the subjects than maybe you’d like. But a bold choice paid off, and in this controversial film, that’s not the only bold decision. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers named it 2012’s movie of the year, but he knew it wouldn’t get much love from the Academy. It was too provocative. (It did end up getting three acting nominations, the ones for Hoffman and Phoenix were most definitely deserved…Adams’s subdued role left me unimpressed.) While his story and script are both poetic, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will be Blood”) lets his actors tell the simple, yet powerful, story.
If “The Master” was to receive critical acclaim, its acting was certainly what it was going to be for. Philip Seymour Hoffman had rarely been better in his top-notch performance. It seemed as though Hoffman performed best when he was out of his element (think “Capote,” too). But it was Joaquin Phoenix who really stole the show. Had “Lincoln” not been made when it was, Phoenix would have easily won his first Oscar in 2013. He was completely in-character, as intimately and sexually deprived as his character in “Her” – except in “The Master,” we actually cared. He was absolutely superb.
To watch “The Master” once or twice is probably enough, unfortunately. Like many of the greatest films ever made (“Schindler’s List,” “Gone with the Wind”), they are much more easily respected than thoroughly enjoyed. “The Master” is impressive, but not universally entertaining. You aren’t going to pull it out during your sleepover for you and your friends to watch. But it’s a cult classic of a different sort.