Sometimes the frame is more interesting than the picture. The Master, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) boasts great acting, striking visuals and a number of memorable scenes, all of which add up to ... what? Not the feeling one gets after watching a grand film.
Reviewers championing the production insist that The Master is too rich and deep to fully appreciate on just one viewing. They may be right; perhaps this is a work of art where the first viewing is simply the initial sip in what deserves to be a long drink. But I’ve only seen it one time and the experience was frustrating. The Master feels like it’s building to something profound — then it doesn’t.
The characters — the 1950-set film is more about characters than story — are a junkyard dog and his would-be master. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a royally screwed up WWII vet with terrible impulse control. Freddie is a mean drunk given to violent outbursts. After one of his misadventures, he takes refuge on a yacht, where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), creator of The Cause, a discipline/religion/cult that uses repetition and digging at painful memories to rid the soul of impurities. Time travel is involved somewhere in the process.
The men connect and something sparks. Freddy appears drawn to a father figure that appears unlikely to turn him away. He shows his appreciation for Dodd by beating up those who criticize The Cause. Dodd appears to be attracted to Freddy’s wild side. Perhaps there’s a bit of homoerotic appeal, but Dodd seems to view Freddie as both the undisciplined child he no longer is supposed to be and the perfect test subject for The Cause. Freddie’s ready to be a test subject, even after Dodd’s son Val, played by Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights, says “He’s just making it up as he goes along — can’t you see that?”
While the boys play games, Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams, in a fine imposing performance) and other members of the inner circle look on with concern. The Cause can only be endangered by this junkyard dog. Dodd is a loose cannon prone to blather enamored with a loose cannon prone to punching. Nothing good can come of this.
Sounds like a must-see movie, right? In addition to Phoenix and Hoffman’s exceptional acting, the cinematography (shot mostly in 65mm) couples with Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score to create a beautiful, ominous atmosphere. There’s a memorable scene where we see a subjective view of the patrons of a party — the men appear in suits, the women are nude. Another scene in adjoining jail cells places the id next to the superego for a temper tantrum smackdown. There’s so much of interest here, but the big payoff, the moment of transcendence, satisfaction or outrage never happens.
The Master was, by report, a larger movie, but Anderson cut out the scenes unrelated to the love story between the guys. What’s left is insufficient. Maybe I’ll discover something more when I watch the movie again. For now, I can only look at The Master as much ado about not enough.