Joaquin Phoenix makes a mesmerizing return to the screen.
THE MASTER written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, with Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern. An eOne Films release. 138 minutes. Opens Friday (September 21). See times. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
I've seen The Master twice now. In 70mm, the day before the Toronto Film Festival, and in a 4K digital projection the day after it ended. The second viewing clarified some of my issues with Paul Thomas Anderson's wildly anticipated period drama, and amplified others.
Sumptuously photographed on large-format film and intended to be projected in 70mm (as it will be in its Toronto engagement at the Varsity 8), The Master is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an unstable WWII Navy vet who falls in with a charismatic writer (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The author, Lancaster Dodd, claims to have discovered the cure for, well, everything - as long as you do exactly what he says.
The question of whether Dodd is a stand-in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is ultimately irrelevant. The Master is really Freddie's story, and as played by an emaciated, prematurely grizzled Phoenix, he's a mesmerizing character.
But the movie around him isn't nearly as focused and intense as its subjects. The Master's long, discursive structure forces Anderson to build and release tension in a very different manner than he did in Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Scenes stretch out at great length as Freddie and Dodd circle one another. But even before that, Phoenix shows us precisely how much rage is always bubbling within Freddie's chest in long, unbroken takes.
It's a testament to Anderson's confidence and control that it wasn't until I saw The Master a second time that I realized neither actor is the right age for his character. Phoenix is at least a decade older than he should be; Hoffman a decade younger. Amy Adams is roughly age-appropriate as Dodd's wife, Peggy, but her watchful presence makes her seem more adult than anyone else.
It's also Anderson's most Kubrickian work to date - in its fondness for low angles, its strangely calibrated eroticism and certainly in its pacing. The Master's longueurs and meanderings may well be the point, but they make the film feel blurry and unformed, and all of the characters seem adrift, not just Freddie.
I suspect it's nothing at all like the movie Anderson had in his head when he started. But this one's fascinating, too.