Basic Plot: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a emotionally damaged veteran in the aftermath of the Pacific War. Struggling to hold down a job with his erratic and violent behavior, he sneaks aboard a vessel owned by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who takes an interest in him. Dodd is the head of a movement called The Cause, which mixes both science and spirituality, and Freddie becomes one of its members.
To start off, I'm going to state that I think Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best writers and directors working today. I think Punch Drunk Love was, despite its strangeness, a beautiful film. Magnolia was too long but has some exceptional scenes and one of the best beginnings I've ever seen. There Will Be Blood is a masterwork. His films are all starkly different from each other, all feature phenomenal performances, and constantly revolutionize genres such as Romance and Westerns. So I was naturally excited when I bought my ticket for The Master, another P.T. Anderson film that starred two of my favorite actors. I settled into my seat, my Sam Adams on my right, and rubbed my hands in anticipation.
Then twenty minutes later I found myself checking the time on my cell phone. This is something I haven't done in a theater since Star Wars: Episode III. Yet here I was, bored.
What went wrong? I wondered. Why am I not sucked into this film? Perhaps I should give it more time. So I did. A couple very good scenes passed by, but then the cell phone was in my palm again and I saw that I still had another hour and a half to go.
So I sat through the rest of the film, all 150 minutes of it, and then left the theater in a forlorn kind of daze. It felt like I had attended some long-awaited concert where all my favorite musicians played together, but due to delays it took over 2 hours for them to take the stage, and by the time they started playing there was a massive power outage and the entire show was canceled. To sum up this overly long metaphor, The Master involved some of the best talent in Hollywood, but ended up a dull disappointment.
This movie was not one of those films that peaks early or late. It doesn't really seem to peak at all. The beginning is mostly a series of images showcasing Quell's condition. He is almost animalistic in his sexual urges, drinks constantly, and does not seem fully aware of his surroundings. This all sounds interesting, but somehow it's not. It goes on for far too long and by the time Freddie finally boards Dodd's ship, I had almost lost all interest in his character. The middle is slow and more monotonous than a metronome. And the ending offers practically no closure at all. I understood what the ending was trying to do, but it was a cheap ending (have the character do something that another character did earlier in the film, like we haven't seen that a million times already) and when the screen went black the theater I was in sounded like the awkward silence following the worst joke in the history of man.
The faults with this film do not lie within the actors, that's for sure. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as usual, but it's Joaquin Phoenix who steals the show here. His performance as a man so lost from the world, so out of wack, is convincing to the point where you don't see him as an actor. You don't see Joaquin Phoenix, you see Freddie Quell. All his physical traits, the strange sneer, the childish laugh, the crooked posture, all of them are consistent from scene to scene. The voice is also perfect: a rustic, workaday drawl, beaten to a pulp by smoke and alcohol. Physical traits aside, when he has to emote, Phoenix doesn't hold back. There is a fantastic scene where Dodd is asking Quell a series of psychoanalytical questions, and he answers them with both hesitation and humor, oftentimes changing his answers when Dodd asks the same questions twice. Once it's done, Quell thinks the process is fun and wants more, so they enter into what is basically a lightning round, where Quell must answer the questions immediately, and without blinking. If he blinks, they have to return to the start. As you can imagine, the scene becomes very intense, and at its zenith, Dodd slowly becomes more gentle as to let Quell realize something about himself, and Quell begins to emotionally break down. This is the highlight of the film. But like I said before, the film itself doesn't peak. A peak is when a film builds to something great. This scene was terrific but the scene before and after it were uninteresting. This scene wasn't the peak; it was a prize in an expired box of Cracker Jacks.
As a side note, Phoenix must have really hurt himself in this film. Try watching it and take a shot every time he punches a wall, breaks a toilet, bangs his head on a mattress, or gets in a fight.
I also enjoyed Amy Adams as Dodd's faithful wife. She reminded me a little of a librarian in the soft but matter-of-fact way of speaking, yet when she needs to defend her husband or The Cause, her eyes become fiery and her entire presence lights up like a lioness protecting her cubs. Her lines are good and she delivers them well, and she also looks the part. I couldn't imagine anyone else in this role of sweet-girl-you-don't-want-to-push-too-far. And if you choose the watch the film, pay attention to the eye-color scene. It's cool as hell.
So if acting wasn't the issue, was it the directing? Of course not, it's Paul Thomas I-Drink-Your-Milkshake Anderson. Most of the scenes are skillfully shot, and I appreciated the lack of camera movement in certain parts, which let the actors and dialogue command the screen.
The problem with the film is simply the pacing. There are good scenes but they do not outweigh how dull some other ones are. There are many parts that have the capacity to be interesting if they were cut off a little earlier. If you have something whimsical on the screen, give us enough of it to enjoy but don't let it overstay its welcome. I know it's a tight balance. I know it's hard to make sure a scene is short enough and long enough. But Anderson, these scenes are too long even for you.
There's a scene with people singing while nude, most likely in Quell's mind. Goes on forever. The scene when they bike across an empty plain. Snore. The scene where Dodd gives Quell an ultimatum and then randomly sings to him. Long and a bit stupid. If I had seen this in the morning or at night, I honestly might have fallen asleep.
And the thing is, I like slower-paced films, such as Lost in Translation or Apocalypse Now. I don't even mind if a film is 2 and a half hours long. But my philosophy is that if you have slow pace and long running time, your movie better be amazing. It needs to astound me, to knock me off my feet with emotional content, a mind-blowing plot, or sheer ferocity. You've got to give me the goods.
And The Master didn't. I have to give it a recommendation for the acting abilities of Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams, (Phoenix will be nominated) as well as a few brilliant scenes and strong direction, but the film never pulled me in. It held me at arm's length, watching characters I didn't really care about, saying lines I forgot by the time I was in my car, and listening to one of the worst soundtracks of all time. I couldn't believe the same guy who scored this also scored There Will Be Blood. If I wanted to hear nonsensical blips for over two hours I would go to Guitar Center and noodle around on the synthesizers.
And I know critics will praise the hell out of this film, and I truly believed I would be one of them. But the film forgot to be interesting. You can't just make a movie strange and long and leave it at that. Without a decent plot or pacing or music or meaning or action or suspense or wisdom or wonder or development, the movie loses its entertainment value completely. There's no story here, no fun, and little real drama.
There's great stuff, here and there, and that's enough for a recommendation. But it's a boring movie.
Best Way to Watch: Wide awake