What to make of The Master? I had been so looking forward to this (NOT) based Scientology (well, sort of) drama from a great director and some of the best actors in the game. Here’s what I walked away with:
Paul Thomas Anderson is a challenging director. He doesn’t take an easy path to his films, pushes you as a viewer, gets incredible performances out of everyone, and has no desire to make anything comfortable or ordinary.
The film has a compact story. Very little happens – and what happens isn’t of much substance. This isn’t a movie to find out how it ends. It essentially comes to a conclusion of little surprise and then the credits roll. Paul Thomas Anderson films dn’t typically stick to standard film arc or character development. If it wasn’t for the acting in some of these dialogue driven scenes, the film could easily have lost me. Film will surely be nominated for the Oscar in Picture, Writing, and Director. But The Master isn’t a masterpiece. It is about its parts. And the acting is chief among them.
What acting! It is stupendous all around. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are each spellbinding. Neither play a sympathetic or likeable character, so their ability to draw me in, surprise, and captivate with their skill is even more the remarkable. Early buzz is both to be nominated for Best Actor and Hoffman to win, but Phoenix deserves it more. Amy Adams will surprise you as she is a force with her supporting role.
It is nice to see Joaquin Phoenix back to form. I have great affection for the Phoenix family. River Phoenix and I were both born in 1970. I became a huge fan of his with his Stand By Me, his 2nd film. Sometimes compared to James Dean, he was beautiful, talented, confident, and a risk-taker. He went on to succeed in a number of offbeat roles and unusual films (especially My Own Private Idaho and Running on Empty, which got him an Acadamy Award nomination at age 19) while his more mainstream stuff didn’t do so well (A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon or Sneakers). Of course, we exempt Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade because everything about it was brilliant. His death at age 23 deprived the world of a true talent.
While sisters Summer, Rain and Liberty Phoenix had tiny to small acting careers, little brother Joaquin Phoenix (he went by “Leaf Phoenix” early in his career to fit in with his siblings’ names) has grabbed the family’s acting legacy. He stood out among the all-star cast of Parenthood, made when we he was an age appropriate 15. That has always been one my favorite “family” films. When he 26, he was nominated as the villainous Commodus for Gladiator. He was nominated again for Walk the Line as Johnny Cash (where he lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman). Trivia: He and River are the first brothers to be nominated for Academy Awards (screw you Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen).
Joaquin and his brother-in-law Casey Affleck put on some sort of long-form hoax (think Andy Kaufman) with Joaquin retiring from acting becoming a long bearded rapper. Thankfully that is over. Watching him in The Master, he is craftsman. Between the close-ups of Paul Thomas Anderson, the lines and crevices of his face which he often makes his right side looking damaged, his body hunched awkwardly, and the unexpected ways Phoenix plays every line, he is a welcome and different sort of acting force.
As for Scientology. I have no idea if that’s what it is like. The undercurrent of homosexuality among the male characters might be my projection, but certainly is my assumption about some groups. The notion that one charismatic man can make up crazy stuff and get many others to follow his lead doesn’t surprise me at all. We live in a far more cult-like society than we admit. Religions are challenged by it. Politics. Celebrity. Sports. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, but the inconsistencies of Hoffman’s character’s declarations do play out, especially in a wonderful scene with Laura Dern. I would have like more story focused on the son, played by Jesse Plemons. But backstory and character development are not the film’s goal. Challenging our relationships and notions of family, connection, and belonging are more its focus.
While I did not love The Master as I hoped to, I cannot deny its craftsmanship and stupendous acting. It will be nominated for a boatload of Academy Awards and almost certainly win Actor (for one of the two). It is a success for its parts rather than the sum of its parts.
What did you think? Post your comments below.