‘Tis the time of year when the prestigious films we critics and industry wags refer to as “Oscar bait” start to hit the multiplexes. The first such obvious release out of the gate is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (from The Weinstein Company), which opened in LA and NYC on September 14 following its award-winning premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It will expand nationally in October.
Anderson’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood is distinguished by potent if often flamboyant performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a more subdued but surprisingly dark turn by the ordinarily-cherubic Amy Adams, and elegant production design and photography that are showcased especially well in the 70mm format in which the film is being projected in some cities.
The screenplay, however, is a murky mash-up of religious expose (particularly in regard to Scientology and similar guru-led “cults”), a critique of post-World War II American mores, and an unrequited love story (possibly two unrequited love stories). Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Navy sailor just released from service in the wake of V-J day. To call Freddie an alcoholic is an understatement, as he imbibes anything containing alcohol -- including mouthwash, paint thinner and even ammunition fluid -- as frequently as possible. Freddie has even seemingly suffered a stroke as a result of his addiction and is capable of speaking out of only one side of his mouth. Phoenix also employs a somewhat stooped posture and frequent placement of his hands on his hips as more of Freddie’s idiosyncrasies.
After a fellow field worker nearly dies as a result of drinking one of Freddie’s concoctions, Freddie flees and literally stumbles upon the yacht of one Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Dodd is a published author, philosopher and popular public speaker. He is also the head of a growing religious movement called “The Cause,” which employs various unorthodox practices. His devoted yet manipulative wife (Adams) and followers regularly refer to Dodd simply as “Master,” and Freddie soon finds himself under Dodd’s spell. Dodd unearths numerous skeletons in Freddie’s closet through a series of interviews and uses the information to coerce the too-wasted-to-care Freddie into what writer-director Anderson has referred to as a pseudo-homoerotic relationship. (SPOILER: The film’s final act is about as gay as you can get, with Dodd tearfully crooning Frank Loesser’s “On a Slow Boat to China” to Freddie.)
Anderson expands to some degree in The Master on the power struggle between faith and commerce/social progress he more clearly drew in There Will Be Blood. The relationship that develops between Freddie and Dodd is more complex than the rivalry that so palpably, memorably characterized Daniel Day Lewis’ oil baron and Paul Dano’s evangelist. As individuals, though, the Master and his toady aren’t as well developed and subsequently don’t register as strongly. Dodd’s motives remain largely elusive, and Freddie is a pretty hopeless case when it comes to The Cause’s efforts to help humankind overcome its animalistic nature in favor of the divine spirit with which we are imbued. Nevertheless, Hoffman and Phoenix dive into their roles with gusto and exhibit great chemistry. Amy Adams’ work here is the real revelation among the performances for me, subtly revealing her controlling methods as the film progresses. I loved how her hair falls ever-so-slightly more out of place as the power her character wields grows.
Jonny Greenwood’s unusual music score, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, is seemingly a character unto itself that generally supports but occasionally clashes with the film’s flesh-and-blood protagonists and narrative. Better utilized are the numerous period songs Anderson incorporates, the most telling of which is Irving Berlin’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” in addition to the previously mentioned “On a Slow Boat to China.” Anderson truly is a master himself at using existing music to evoke setting and mood.
While many respected critics are drooling all over The Master, the opening weekend, largely industry-connected audience I viewed the film with gave it a fairly chilly reception. I foresee deserved Academy Award nominations for its lead performances and in technical categories including art direction, cinematography and costume design, but I can’t declare the movie a Masterpiece.
Reverend’s Rating: B