Movie Review: ‘The Master’
The best thing about this movie are the performances. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are flawless. You just won’t see better acting on a movie screen today. Curiously, their characters are linked by two masturbation scenes placed strategically in the film. Joaquin needs a master, Philip may already have one. Intrigued?
Well, with that little oddity aside, I should say I didn’t love ‘The Master’. And I really wanted to. There’s been so much praise for the film, I was nearly resigned to placing it in my top 10 before I even saw it. One thing I can say for certain is that after viewing the film, it will not make that list.
I love Paul Thomas Anderson and have loved nearly all of his films. If I’m being honest with myself, I’d place this somewhere right above ‘Punch Drunk Love’ and ‘Hard Eight’ and just below ‘Boogie Nights’.
‘Magnolia’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’, excite me. ‘The Master’, which I often found fascinating, would also—intermittently—lose my interest. I wasn’t really bored, but at times, I wasn’t really compelled either. It meanders and loses steam after the first hour and a half, before picking up again near the end.
There’s been talk that this is an exposé of the cult of Scientology, but it’s not. While aspects of it are modeled specifically after the religion and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, it’s never explicit. This is really more a film for lovers of art-house cinema than it is for gossip-seekers. The trashy part of me would’ve liked just a smidgen of the latter.
The acting is really the reason to see this movie. That and the glorious 70mm projection, if you can find it in your area. The shots are beautifully composed and captured with 65mm film, which gives the warm, natural aspects of film, but with the clarity of digital. The film’s negatives were cut by hand by a French woman named Simone who used a pair of scissors from Staples.
While Joaquin and Philip are perfection, I was put-off by the usually adept Amy Adams. I’m not quite sure if this because of her acting or the writing, but either way I think she’s miscast. Her performance is kind of all over the place. I don’t know who her character is really supposed to be and I get the feeling no one else does either. Amy lacks the teeth needed for this role. I actually think Laura Dern would’ve been better in the part; she shows up with a small role. It’s very nicely done, by the way.
Ultimately the film reminds me of a few other ambitious art-house disappointers that aim high but fail to truly deliver: ‘The Tree of Life’, ‘Cosmopolis’, and even Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’. What those films have in common with ‘The Master’ is that they all take a long way around to communicate a relatively simple truth. In the case of ‘The Master’ that truth is ‘we all need a master’.
I think I just gave away the ending, not that it really matters. Ultimately for me, what I remember most about the experience is that my desire to stay seated seemed to wax and wane throughout the film’s 137 minute running time.
If you love Paul Thomas Anderson, obtuse films, or brilliantly modulated acting—go see it. If these are not your passions, skip it—you won’t like it.
[***] out of [****]
‘The Master’ is rated R and is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Only select theaters are showing it projected in 70mm, as intended. Click here for a list of U.S. theaters with 70mm projection capability. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern. Original music by Jonny Greenwood.
My favorite Paul Thomas Anderson films (in order) are:
1. ‘There Will Be Blood’
3. ‘Boogie Nights’
4. ‘The Master’
5. ‘Hard Eight’ (aka ‘Sydney’)
6. ‘Punch Drunk Love’