The Master comes from the apple of the critical world's eye: Paul Thomas Anderson. Five years ago he gave us the incomparable There Will Be Blood; a tour de force courtesy of Daniel Day Lewis, impeccable direction and fantastic writing. The Master comes close to that legacy but falls slightly short of such a remarkable achievement.
Controversially "inspired" by the religion (or cult, depending on your opinion) of Scientology, The Master deals with exploitation of those who are easily impressionable or feel they have no place, self-delusion and the fears of paranoia and failure. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman lead the way and make the film the impressive piece that it is. Phoenix is a former seaman who's been left scarred by the second world war and is struggling to adjust back to civilian life, and Hoffman is the titular master who picks him up and gives him some direction in his life by taking him on as a muse and enforcer for his movement. A destructive and fiery relationship between the master and his new protégé ensues, filled with misplaced trust, fierce loyalty and bouts of explosive and violent anger both in service of the master and against him
The Master is very much a PTA film: it looks beautiful in its slow and considered state of sedate softness, it feels a lot longer than it is and it is filled with powerhouse performances. Unfortunately though, The Master suffers from a number of mis-steps that his previous works avoid. Incoherent at points, it feels as if there is a lot more going on than we see, and not in a way that leaves you feeling like the world created is very deep but rather that plot threads are opened only to be cut short. Characters are introduced, established to be important either to someone else or to the plot and then they just disappear. It might be a purposeful stylistic choice to highlight the isolation from society that occurs in cults, but it's almost too self contained. There are very minor and often insignificant references to how the larger world views the cult, and its insidiousness doesn't come to light in a clear way.
That said, it's worth seeing because Phoenix and Hoffman give award-worthy performances. Phoenix's broken and self destructive portrayal of the lost and angry man who has nothing to live for is only matched by Hoffman's calm and collected, self-deluding man who needs to be needed.
If you've never seen a film by Paul Thomas Anderson though, gives The Master a miss and go back and watch There Will Be Blood instead and put the Master on the "Get around to watching sometime, eventually" list.
I do love that poster though.
In other news I've just ordered The Dark Knight Rises on DVD and I'm just gonna write off an entire day week after next (when it arrives) to watch the trilogy in one go because I am a sad, sad, sad individual.