‘The Master,’ Paul Thomas Anderson’s brand new film about the emergence of a new religious cult, is an artistically, stylish film with a mildly interesting plot that is mainly carried on the masterful performance of Puerto Rican star Joaquin Phoenix. If it weren’t for him, the film’s overall plot would be bland and prosaic. The two time Oscar nominated Phoenix gives, in my mind, the performance of his life as Freddie Quell. Even though the rest of the film possesses strengths in the acting and directing department, it is Phoenix who singlehandedly makes it memorable.
‘The Master’ takes place in the atmosphere of spiritual yearning on the cusp of 1950. The film follows the shifting fortunes of Freddie, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, a volatile former Naval officer unable to settle down into everyday life, and the unpredictable journey he takes when he stumbles upon a fledgling movement known as The Cause. Coming to The Cause as an itinerant and outsider, Freddie will ultimately become a surrogate heir to its flamboyant leader: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. And yet, even as The Cause probes the mastery of human emotions, the camaraderie between Freddie and Dodd will mount into a fierce and intimate struggle of wills.
In order to appreciate Phoenix’s performance, we need to look at PTA’s (Paul Thomas Anderson) involvement in the writing and casting. Anderson drew up the character of Freddie Quell with Phoenix in mind from the outset. According to Anderson, he’s been asking him for 12 years to be in his films and Phoenix finally accepted. For this reason alone, the actor’s job is tailor-made to fit his strengths and none of his weaknesses. To say that Phoenix sank his teeth into the role and took it to the nth degree would be an understatement. His performance can only be described as raw and animalistic. Phoenix’s portrayal of Freddie Quell is visceral. He plays him as a grown man with serious emotional issues. In addition to being a drunk, socially inept and sexually perverse, he is subject to frequent emotional outbursts that can alternately result in an explosion of anger. His best scenes are those of him being violent and uncontrollable, cockily offbeat yet vulnerable and juvenile but reasonable. He truly shines above anyone in the film and arguably of anyone else this year.
In a film with obvious strengths, nothing ranks higher in “The Master” than the quality of the acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, arguably PTA’s frequent favorite actor, is once again in fine form as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of the “Cause” who is friend and antagonist to Phoenix’s character. Hoffman’s performance here is a mix of many of his previous roles fused into one. We see a side of pure charisma and pure ire. The role fits him like a glove, and if it weren’t for Phoenix’s imposing rendition, we’d be talking about Hoffman. Amy Adams is angelic yet tough, but irrelevant within the scope of her two colossal giant colleagues. When it comes to Oscars, the movie will most likely be nominated for acting and directing awards with Phoenix leading the charge. My prediction is that he will win in the Best Actor category with only Daniel Day Lewis in “Lincoln” posing a serious threat.
In regards to Anderson, he shoots the film masterfully with panache, flair and sentiment. The script, which he wrote, is unapologetic in digging deep into the fractures of the human experience and highlighting those susceptible feelings in his actors. But perhaps in its only flaw, and a critical one at that, there is some excess fat that needed to be cut for sake of pacing and flow. At times, the movie is bogged down on an inordinate amount of dialogue that can lead to some restlessness. With that said, the movie doesn’t reach the depths of hardship which it could have. The acting conceals whatever scant pacing issues the film may suffer from. In the film’s finale, the sequences arrive at a clear decision, but by no means is it satisfying, at least to me.
In the end, ‘The Master’ is not a film for everyone. It offers a lot to those who appreciate dramas and acting prowess. The story itself has interesting tones, but in and of itself, it is not the main driver for one to purchase a movie ticket. If you see it for the acting, you’ll walk away pleased with the time and money invested.