Joaquin Phoenix looks like hell in The Master, the new experience from Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson, his first film since his masterpiece There Will be Blood five years ago.
There’s reason for his appearance, an emotionally scarred sailor of the Second World War, there is rarely a scene in the film where he doesn’t have a drink in his hand; alcohol usually self-concocted generally made with lighter fluid or paint thinner. Perhaps it’s these poisonous substances that cause his insanity; Phoenix is a madman in this movie, a madman trying to find something to believe in, something or someone.
Enter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an astrophysicist, nuclear scientist, author and “above all a man”. He is the founder and leader of The Cause, a religion that promises ultimate fulfillment that believes in such things as reincarnation and, as one character puts it, “is the basis of cult.” The Cause appears quite cult-like, and it’s up to each audience member to decide if Dodd actually believes in his preachings or is just making it up as he goes along.
I had a lot of issues with this movie; principally its run time. At almost two and a half hours long, The Master lags way too much for a movie of its length. I have no problem with long films, just so long as they use the time wisely and The Master does not. Unlike There Will be Blood, this film meanders aimlessly from scene to scene, awkwardly focusing on such oddities as Phoenix walking back and forth between a wall and a window dozens of times (a ritual of The Cause, for what? Who knows). There is, however, quite beautiful imagery and scenery in most of the film’s sequences, even the most tiresome.
At its heart, I believe The Master is supposed to be about faith. Phoenix is trying to find faith in something in order to try to save himself from his own tormented soul and Hoffman keeps going back to Phoenix to try to prove to himself that his religion actually works, but the path to get to this story is just too banal. I believe Anderson to be one of, if not the, best filmmaker to emerge in the last two decades, but The Master is too tedious. Hopefully his next film will return him to the glory days of Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood.