By Ed Symkus
Some people go to see movies because of the director. Of the five features that Paul Thomas Anderson made before this one, a couple were good, if flawed (Hard Eight, There Will Be Blood), one was a misfire (Punch-Drunk Love), and two were masterpieces (Boogie Nights, Magnolia).
Most regular moviegoers are looking to see their favorite actors up there on the big screen. Among their numerous performances, Joaquin Phoenix has two Oscar nominations (Walk the Line, Gladiator) and Rochester native Philip Seymour Hoffman has two nominations (Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War) and a win (Capote).
The triple threat talents of this trio, along with a perfect supporting cast and an intriguing yet purposely murky storyline, makes The Master a film that’s going to win over serious viewers and critics. But the essence of it – a post-WWII tale about a new approach to life referred to only as “the Cause” (ever heard of Scientology?) and a charismatic leader who, for most of the film is called “Master” (can you say L. Ron Hubbard?) – is going to give pause to general moviegoing audiences.
This is a challenging film that leans more toward character study than storytelling. But the two lead actors are so good, so completely consumed by their roles, there’s a good chance that additional award nominations will be tacked onto their resumés.
Hoffman, who made a splash early on playing a downtrodden but ever hopeful production assistant in Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and has followed a remarkable career path, plays a man who, while not evil, is Voldemort-like in that his devotees believe that he must not be named. Phoenix, who fooled fans and most of Hollywood into thinking he was through with acting and had devolved into lunacy (till it was revealed that the documentary about him becoming a rap artist was actually of the faux variety), plays Freddie, a lost soul, plagued by alcoholism, insecurity, and bouts of rage, unable to adapt to life outside of the military, who stumbles upon, is welcomed by, and becomes a disciple of the leader.
But why do people flock behind this guy like sheep? Anderson doesn’t give any simple answers, just glimpses of him offering up thoughts of the need to get rid of negative behavior, and the belief that humans are not part of the animal kingdom. He comes across as an intelligent, likeable man who happens to be a dynamic speechmaker and wants only do to good for others.
Freddie, who has no direction in life, is a perfect guinea pig and protégée, someone to be experimented upon in what is being called the art of processing – traumatic emotional sessions or treatments in which he, and others before him, are guided through a method of accessing past lives, or some such tommyrot.
Anderson fills the film with repetitive speeches from Hoffman’s character and recurring behavior that he forces upon those studying with him. Yet there’s not much plot-related stuff going on, beyond some frantic fights of both the vocal and fisticuff variety, and instances of what might be flights of fancy or even drunken delusions.
One question that’s brought up frequently but never directly answered concerns who is really running this cult-like operation, the intense Hoffman character or his quietly demanding wife (Amy Adams). Yet everything stays focused on the symbiotic but troubled father-son-like relationship between the two male leads.
The film is at its best when the two men are together in the frame, giving forth with all the acting chops they’ve got. It’s great to see Hoffman at the top of his game. It’s even better to have Phoenix back, and in that same game.