Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: "The Master"

Sometimes a film comes along that is very difficult to review. The Master is exactly that kind of film. Prior to screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered with high expectations after its showing in Venice, the film was already being hailed as a surefire Oscar contender. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is deservedly winning the lion's share of the praise, but after calling the Academy Awards bullshit, will he still reap a nomination? Every fall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams seem to find themselves in a film begging for Oscars. It is still too early to tell, but they are lucky to work with auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson. His early films, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), earned nominations but walked away empty handed. Finally, in 2007, There Will Be Blood earned eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Daniel Day-Lewis won a well deserved Best Actor statuette for his spellbinding role as Daniel Plainview. Like all his films, The Master is beautifully photographed and directed with firm control. The Master does get lost in its own stubbornness, trying to be a bold statement on Scientology without actually taking a stand on the issue. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character is a thinly veiled portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but The Master seems foolish for masquerading around. Does Scientology truly have such a firm grasp on Hollywood that even one of its most unique directors skirts the issues? The Master is an engrossing film that tries far too hard, but its gorgeous colours (especially the deep blue of the ocean) and mesmerizing performances make it a must-see film. It is definitely the kind of film that will test your morals, and your patience.

Freddie Quell is a World War II veteran. He suffers from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. After fighting in the war, Freddie struggles to readjust to society. He works as a photographer at a department store, but he is fired after he drunkenly harasses a customer. Freddie finds work on a farm, but after one of his homemade alcoholic drinks poisons someone he is forced to run away. By chance, he drunkenly stumbles aboard a yacht belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader of a The Cause, a philosophical movement. Dodd is intrigued by Freddie, and allows him to stay, even inviting him to his daughter's wedding, if he will make drinks for him. Freddie allows Dodd to subject him to a unique form of questioning, called Processing, where it is revealed that Freddie has a traumatic past. Freddie joins Dodd's movement, but Dodd's wife Peggy (Adams) tells him that his alcoholism has no place in the inner circle. Freddie works alongside the Dodds as they travel across the United States, even though others become suspicious of him.

Personally, the best part of The Master were the scenes in Philadelphia when The Cause exploited the kindness of Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern). I was just so surprised to see one of my favourite actresses in such a film! She is such an eccentric actress that it was interesting to see her play such highbrow 50s housewife. And still, more than a month after seeing The Master I am no closer to telling you whether or not I really liked it. I find it more polarizing than Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. While there was a very limited narrative in Malick's film, I at least understood it. Paul Thomas Anderson has offered something truly confounding and done very little to support it. I have no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson is a truly visionary director (his work in There Will Be Blood cemented his status) or that Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams are excellent actors, but the story is severely lacking. Anderson's script has too many holes, and while he tries his hardest to fix plot holes with snazzy direction, The Master falls apart. Joaquin Phoenix is said to have improvised quite a bit on set, and perhaps the somewhat unpredictable Phoenix caused the story to suffer. The Master is filmed with a unique eye for beauty and features some incredible performances, but I was quite disappointed by the final product. The film definitely does not deserve its buzz-worthy status.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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