Today! Because if you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy –
The Master (2012)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons, Kevin J. O’Connor (x2), Ambyr Childers, Christopher Evan Welch, Jillian Bell, W. Earl Brown, Kevin J. Walsh
One of the decidedly less accessible but undeniably brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson films of recent years, The Master is his rage-acted takedown of Scientology-esque “religious” cults of personality. Typical of PTA’s movies, the acting here is first rate – Hoffman’s work as the L. Ron Hubbard of The Cause, Lancaster Dodd, is riveting madness, topped only by Phoenix’s hyper-intense take on the shattered war vet Freddie Quell. Less bombastic but still gripping is Adams as the power-behind-the-throne wife of the cult leader. All three would rightfully get Oscar nominations, but all would lose in the absolutely stacked year of 2012. Okay, I could see Hoffman topping Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, his always struck me as an odd win, but what, was Phoenix’s volcanic work really going to win out against Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln? Or was Adams realistically going to beat Anne Hathaway for singing “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Mis? 2012, man – it’s one of the greats.
And across a career of beautiful films, The Master might be PTA’s best looking. Shot entirely in 65mm, the detail and the richness is stunning, giving the film a sweeping visual grandeur, a gorgeousness offset by the true, underlying ugliness of the characters and their half-crocked, cockamamie organization. The movie could’ve worked as a small character drama, with actors locked in rooms barking disagreements at each other, and functioned as a decent bit of theater (like, say, another great Hoffman drama, Doubt). But with this epic cinematographic scope, and sublime bits of visual metaphor thrown in, The Master succeeds as so much more.
And yet – as the movie progresses, and the characters fall aggressively out of favor with each other, a clear purpose to the finale gets lost. And, not unlike The Phantom Thread or Inherent Vice, the audience is left to piece a lot of things together after the credits. And again, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing – a film creating post-viewing contemplation and discussion is pretty vital for the entire art form to stay relevant. But, it does keep more casual viewers and less inquiring critics at an arm’s length. I love The Master, I’m a huge PTA fan, as discussed in #380’s There Will Be Blood, but I worry about the growing esoteric-ness (esoteric-ocity?) of his later films.
More lauded for its acting than anything, The Master was still widely praised by critics at year end, making numerous lists and picking up a handful of critics awards, mostly for Hoffman. It almost feels slighted at a glance, but again, 2012 was such a loaded year that it was an uphill fight for anything to really compile hardware. Can we at least throw it a Best Slow Boat to China Rendition, for Hoffman’s creepy serenade in the final act?
Our only new Two-Timer today is the great character actor Kevin J. O’Connor, adding his role in this Paul Thomas Anderson joint to his work in There Will Be Blood. Spotlight!