This Oscar-nominated Paul Thomas Anderson film is either the kind of movie you'll fall in love with or the worst thing you'll have seen in years....
Anchor Bay / 137 Minutes / 2012 / Rated R / Street Date: February 26, 2013
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shell of a man. Riddled by his service in WWII and constantly dealing with a lack of a sense of place and meaning in his world, Freddie returns from the war arena to a world he hardly recognizes. He gets simple, low-level jobs, hooks up with as many loose women as he can, and drinks not only like a fish, but like a strangely creative one, concocting libations out of kerosene and paint thinner in an attempt to drink away his troubles.
As he flees a ranch toward the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – after letting an elder member of a work crew drink way too much of one of Freddie’s rotgut creations – he finds himself on a boat, a barge whose captain is one Mr. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who provides the seemingly perfect yin to Freddie’s yang: Dodd is smart, controlled, beloved by both his colleagues and by women, and seems to be perfectly locked into his role as head of a group vaguely called The Cause. Freddie promptly joins up, and all hell breaks loose.
The fashion in which this commotion in Anderson’s movie is represented is what gives The Master its sense of dread and beauty. No other movie in 2012 polarized moviegoers like this one – stuffy critics pretty much loved it, the idiot masses rejected it completely – but PTA’s risk taking as a storyteller pays off handsomely here: what in someone else’s hands might be just a vague retelling of the roots of Scientology becomes far more under Anderson’s steady control. In fact, the Scientology element of the movie becomes a red herring of sorts.
This kind of oblique strategy is what led most viewers to grow frustrated with The Master as a full tale. The movie starts with clear-headed strength, but it doesn’t so much reach a finale as it dissolves, choosing to let its various narrative tendrils reach their unglamorous ends rather than wrap things up in a nice, clean bow. The Master is not an easy movie to digest, nor does it provide all that much in terms of immediate dramatic impact. But no other movie showcased as much haunted imagery as this one in 2012: in a year jam-packed with cinematic normalcy, The Master provided a deep reservoir of moody, impressionistic trickery.
It’s either a self-obsessed vision quest or a bona fide classic (or maybe both…).