By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Master” strives to impress with eloquent language, fine suits and psychic parlor tricks that serve as a cerebral misdirection, we might as well wonder if filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is similarly pulling some elaborate wool over our eyes. Though employing 65mm film stock, sumptuous cinematography and dead-on 50s production design, The Master isn’t a story writ large. It’s barely writ at all.
Rather, filmmaker Anderson delivers a series of beautifully photographed scenes that skitter around an amorphous whole. Who are these people? How is it that the protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix’ Freddie Quell) is all but a dimwit with an aggressive libido and even more aggressive fists, whose biggest accomplishment lies in his ability to concoct lethal cocktails? (Seriously lethal, posing a very real possibility of inflicting death.) How is it that this fellow, grinning when he’s confused (which is often), bereft of a character arc, deserves to be the main focus of this film? Don’t tell Freddie that he’s the protagonist; he’d be just as surprised as we are.
What isn’t surprising is that the post-WWII Navy vet is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When given a Rorschach test, all Freddie can discern in the ink blots are genitals. After failing to find steady work, one night he lurches on to a private yacht, where the guests are celebrating the wedding of Master’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers). Since Master, a/k/a Lancaster Dodd, perceives in Freddie a baser kind of animal than he’s accustomed to, Master is intrigued with the possibility of treating him. (Treating him for what?) But Freddie, rootless, is happy to hang around — at the very least, by carrying Master’s luggage and acting as the family’s muscle, he’ll be fed, clothed and housed.
We never quite know the tenets of Master’s newfound faith-based religion. He talks about curing disease and refers to past lives. But at his heart, he’s half showman, half snake-oil salesman who loves a gathering crowd as he hypnotizes wealthy, older women — women who subsequently believe that they’ve undergone some miraculous treatment and donate money to The Cause. His most fervent follower is his pregnant younger wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who’s on a personal mission to eradicate Freddie from their lives. Does she believe there’s an unhealthy home-erotic charge to the relationship between Master and Freddie? Like everything else in this film … we’re not quite sure.
This is Paul Thomas Anderson at his most cruel. He intimates, almost promises, that with every new scene we’ll finally see some furtherance of a viable plot, or some resolution of a prior thread left hanging or, dare we hope? some deep exploration of character. But no … after much tedium, he cuts away to yet another swollen scene. Gee, maybe the good Master himself has a remedy for all this wearying, 137-minute bloat.
Back to the misdirection: What with Hoffman’s and Phoenix’ fascinating performances, the audience might miss the fact that this particular emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. As Master, Hoffman is an all-strutting — albeit fragile — ego who is unable to withstand the slightest criticism. When challenged, he screams out in sharp, wounded recriminations. Phoenix’ Freddie, often drunk, struggles with the fact that even with his limited intelligence, he knows his boss is a charlatan. The longer he stays, the more it weighs on him, literally, his spine collapsing to the point that he resembles a hunchback.
More akin to Anderson’s earlier Boogie Nights than his brilliant There Will Be Blood, while the production values are superb, the story remains flaccid. We get bits of character here, other bits there, Anderson’s characters flitting around the screen as lightly-drawn enigmas who never enjoy the benefit of exploration. Poor pregnant Peggy is relegated to a one-note expression of disapproval, while the rest of the family comes close to cardboard. In one scene, Freddie is instructed to carry out a wall-to-window exercise, in which he crosses the room lengthwise, from the wall to the window and back again, ad nauseam. Freddie may feel relieved when it’s over … but not as relieved as the audience. Whether it’s about unearthing some magic book buried in a stone block inside a cave (what?!), or the leads taking turns on a motorcycle ride that zooms to a point on the horizon and back again – the camera lingering over every inch of this ultimately non-theatric ride – The Master appears to be on the road to nowhere. A road with a dead end, straight ahead. Wow. Lookout. Yawn.
Rating on a scale of 5 self-ascribed Messianic leaders: 2
Release date: September 14, 2012 (ltd.); wider release September 21, 2012
Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons, Kevin J. O’Connor, Christopher Evan Welch
Running Time: 137 minutes