The Master isn’t a movie as much as it is a story that is told by a drunk. In that, it tells a somewhat linear narrative that jumps around with an almost “Oh, I forgot to mention…” mentality that can lose viewers. This is a story not told by Paul Thomas Anderson; this is a movie told by Joaquin Phoenix’s character.
If you’re looking for a basic description of what the movie may be about, try this: Have you ever had a friend who, through everything bad about them, you keep around, or somehow manages to tag along over the course of a couple of years, always in the peripheral? Freddie does this to Philip Seymour-Hoffman. There you go. That’s your movie. There is a lot – and I mean a lot – that goes on in between, but this movie is ultimately about the beginning, middle, and end of a friendship between a drifter and Seymour-Hoffman’s depiction of a young L. Ron Hubbard stand-in.
The first third of the movie deals solely with Phoenix’s drifting, alcoholic life. The second third deals with the birth of Scientology (herein called ‘The Cause’) and the last third deals with the unraveling of the relationship between Hoffman and Phoenix – itself a wonderful, wonderful, so fucking wonderful portrait of one man looking for a son and another man looking for a father, yet never quite connecting. Everything about the movie is crafted exquisitely; every shot looks amazing; and the acting is herculean. But I’ve never seen a movie so intelligent yet so seemingly reluctant to have an audience.
It’s clear that Paul Thomas Anderson has been aching to make this movie for a while. Since “Boogie Nights” he’s been honing his movies down to their base levels – turning 90 or 120 pages of script into a fever dream full of “essence” rather than, say, a fully formed Michael Bay movie with explosions and a popcorn fetish. “Magnolia” was the movie where he officially combined both art and commerce into a fully fledged art-house epic that transcended format and became a landmark of professionalism. You know what? Fuck it. It’s a damn good movie. It’s hard to talk about movies like “art” because the best ones allow you to live with them. “Magnolia” made the viewer a willing character, sometimes checking in just to see if you were paying attention. This is what makes Paul Thomas Anderson smart: he’s a filmmaker who is not afraid to make a movie as smart as he is.
In “The Master,” though, he eschews that goodwill altogether. “The Master” pulls you along almost with Hoffman’s character and when the end comes you’re almost glad to have left him. This isn’t a feelgood movie. Nor is it a movie in the classical sense of the word. It’s like walking in a play that you can’t leave. Some of the characters are overbearing (Amy Adams, in her best onscreen performance so far, plays The Master’s wife who seems to bear a lot of the control in the relationship), others reek of alcohol – Phoenix’s character’s sole talent is making apparently mindblowing cocktails using paint thinner, gasoline, or whatever seems to be laying around.
Assuredly, “The Master” will inspire a few if not many unprepared theatergoers to walk out. This is not a popcorn movie nor is it a movie like anything else you have seen before. You may disagree with it – make no mistake, it does not once try to agree with you. This may be Anderson’s masterstroke – making a movie with zero agreeable characters. Some might say that it’s a brave decision made by an even braver director. They might be correct.
Unlike his last movie “There Will Be Blood,” here there is no quotable line that the viewer will quote ad infinitum until Anderson’s next work. There is barely anything here for the viewer to latch onto, save Phoenix’s nearly comical drunkenness, unless they are 100% prepared to lose themselves from the first frame until the last. I can’t stress that enough. Watching a matinee showing in Manhattan with some of NYC’s finest film buffs nearby me, I witness more uncomfortable shuffling than a lice infection during naptime at a daycare. It’s a big, difficult, mean bastard of a movie. It is also one of the most beautiful things from start to finish that I have ever seen on screen.
While I won’t negate the fact that Anderson is truly a brave filmmaker on par with Kubrick (absolutely), this may be his “Barry Lyndon” – a beautiful movie appreciated by many who love the craft yet misunderstood and looked over by those who simply can’t lose themselves within it. Much like ‘The Cause’ within the movie, it is a beautiful concept that simply asks that you believe that it is real if only you’d ignore the man behind the curtain.