The newest film is here from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of our greatest filmmakers, who has directed such disparate great films as “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “There Will be Blood.” The new picture, “The Master,” sports two amazing performances and breathtaking visuals, and tackles controversial, taboo subject matter.
Unfortunately, that’s about all that’s to recommend about “The Master.” The film, to be honest, is kind of a slog. There’s a nearly two-and-a-half hour running time in which not a whole lot happens. The film has no narrative momentum, and it has just about nothing of note to say about its supposed subject.
Set in the years after World War II, “The Master” begins with Freddie Quell, a troubled, alcoholic war veteran struggling upon his return stateside. Working as a department store photographer- a job at which he gets into a scuffle with noted Deadwood album W. Earl Brown- and moonlighting as a moonshiner, Freddie eventually stumbles into a self-help movement/cult led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman.)
As has been rumored pretty much since the film was first announced, Dodd’s movement, the Cause, bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. That’s certainly intentional, but one of many ways in which the film falls short is that it doesn’t really have anything new or relevant to say about Scientology, nor does it give us much insight into Hubbard/Dodd. He’s just like every cult leader in every other movie I’ve ever seen about a cult. Honestly, “Bowfinger,” the half-forgotten Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy from the late ’90s, was a more successful skewering of Scientology than “The Master.”
The film is mostly about the relationship between the two men, who fight and reconcile repeatedly. There are a couple of excellent scenes, one of which apes the Scientology “auditing” process.
Both of the lead actors are phenomenal. Anderson, as he did in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” really brings out the best in Hoffman, and here- playing a character significantly older than how we typically think of Philip Seymour Hoffman- he gives one of his most commanding performances, one that’s right up there with his Oscar-winning work in “Capote.”
As for Phoenix, this is his first major role since that bizarre career detour in which he pretended to quit acting and go nuts and made a fake documentary about his pretend rap career. He brings some of that leftover crazy into this part, and it’s a performance that’s impressive but not quite accessible.
There’s not much room for any other cast members. Amy Adams, in a rare misfire, is miscast as Hoffman’s wife, while Jesse Plemons (from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad) gets just about nothing to do in a role as Hoffman’s son.)
The cinematography, by Mihai Malaimare Jr., is gorgeous, among the best in any Anderson film, and there’s another totally unconventional, standout score by Radiohead guitarist-turned film composer Jonny Greenwood.
The problem with the film is that it moves at a glacially slow pace, and there’s never much sense that anything worthwhile is coming to redeem it. There’s nothing close to the exhilaration of “Boogie Nights.” Even “There Will Be Blood” moved a bit slowly, but it had a compelling plot, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ madman performance made it exciting.
The film’s ambition and grand scale is to be admired. But the end result? “The Master” is not among Anderson’s best work.