This review was originally published on September 11, 2012, as part of Film.com's Toronto International Film Festival 2012 coverage.
There was a time when Paul Thomas Anderson could do no wrong. "Boogie Nights" was a sublime and sardonic look at the go-go '70s. "Magnolia" offered lush and beautiful insight into the empathy gap. The little-seen "Punch-Drunk Love" was a naturalistic romantic comedy which, upon cold reflection, probably was a drama after all. Then came the film named as a declaration, "There Will Be Blood," in which it seemed like Anderson stopped asking the big questions, instead focusing on the big answers. This trend continues with "The Master," a brilliant film, no doubt about it, but one that also leaves very little room for an audience to find purchase. "The Master" doesn't really care if you're along for the ride; the train has left the station, enjoy the scenery and don't bother adding in your two cents of imagination, bub.
Blue ocean waves and a soldier peering out over the horizon commence "The Master." We're introduced to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a lost soul if ever there was one. Freddy's specialty seems to be mixology, only not the type that whips up a mean mojito, instead preferring to quixotically employ Lysol in his creations. How he doesn't go (big-time) blind isn't completely explained, but he finds himself aboard a boat where the captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is respectfully called "Master" by everyone on the ship. While underway, Dodd is working on a program he's termed "processing" wherein he tries to cure people of their ailments, be they mental or physical. Hoffman's character is a genuine piece of work, alternatively preacher and doctor, writer and scientist, all depending on his mood. The two, Freddy and Lancaster, get along famously, each enjoying their share of potentially lethal spirits together.
It was the philosopher En Vogue who said, "Free your mind, and the rest will follow." This bon mot is taken for a little spin by "The Master," a film that plays it both ways, first attempting to free minds... right before checking the rear view mirror to see if anyone else is still following along. I don't imagine many will, though "The Master" is practically an actor's workshop in terms of skill level.
The film is set in 1950, with Dodd traveling around the country trying to form a cult of personality. To aid his teaching, he uses a number of interesting techniques, ranging from desensitization to confession. He gives people mantras to repeat, and he speaks in odd hyperbole. "We have beaten the day!" he'll joyfully guffaw, largely apropos of nothing. His wife Peggy (Amy Adams) features a delightful paranoia paired with an iron will. As the strategical director of the operation, she goads her husband to even greater lengths of grandiosity, attacking anyone who gets in the way of the group's succession to power, including (at times), Freddy. Hoffman, for his part, is flat-out amazing as Lancaster Dodd. You're compelled to pay attention to him, his cadence and timbre drawing you closer in the same manner as hypnosis. It's truly an interesting take on how, precisely, a religion or a movement would start. You'd need a guy like Dodd stoking the fire, detaching logic from results deep in people's consciousness. Joaquin Phoenix is also excellent, his penance for "I'm Still Here" now complete.
Still, for all its clever work, "The Master" is highly clinical. It's a movie for students of film history, and for audiences far more patient than average. The themes of "The Master" are relatively clear, and right up there on the surface level for all to note. Can you invent a new way to "help" the troubled out of thin air? How and where does fanaticism form, and what type of person is drawn to the trappings of power, or to follow the newly powerful? These themes get bludgeoned home in a big way throughout the nearly three hours of the film, though not to anyone's benefit. "There Will Be Blood" shared this issue of repetition, but Daniel Day-Lewis was a more lovable scoundrel than Hoffman's Mr. Dodd. There was more room to breathe in each and every one of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, and by comparison "The Master" is oppressive and claustrophobic. Beautifully done, yes, but missing the entire point of "freeing one's mind" while watching a film. "The Master" wants you to do it simply so it can lock you up in its own personal cage.