Movie Review: 'The Master' -- 2.5 stars
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Ask any critic who assigns star ratings to their reviews and they'll tell you that sometimes, even in this Rotten Tomatoes world, a movie defies the cut-and-dry, fresh-or-rotten dichotomy.
"The Master," the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood"), is the perfect example of a movie that transcends simple categorization. It's an impressive feat of filmmaking, brilliantly acted and handsomely captured on the larger-than-life 70mm format. Anderson creates a trance-like rhythm, filling the movie with unbroken shots and lengthy scenes that immerse you in the cult-like world of the religious group at its center.
But at the same time, the movie is such an opaque, emotionless enterprise that it's a chore to sit through. Joaquin Phoenix returns to the screen as Freddie Quell, a Navy veteran struggling in post-WWII California. He has trouble holding down a job and seems altogether aimless, until a late night of wandering leads him to a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a doctor/philosopher/author and founder of The Cause, a burgeoning pseudoreligion.
Despite Phoenix's visceral performance as Freddie, a work filled with wounded sadness and blinding rage, the film unfolds in an abstract haze that keeps you at a remove. Anderson simply refuses to indulge some basic storytelling impulses, abstaining from catharsis and rejecting bold dramatic developments in favor of a sort of dulling repetitiveness. There's a stillness to "The Master," enhanced by its dreamlike visual blend of one-point perspective imagery, stark close-ups and shots of drifting, rolling waves. That's an admirable motif, but it makes the movie feel a bit like a feature length version of one of The Cause's "processing" therapy sessions, in which the same questions or behaviors are repeated over and over again, with slightly different results.
Of course, the movie's had no trouble drumming up publicity. It's partially inspired by Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, who is clearly being channeled by Hoffman's Dodd. But viewers seeking some sort of incendiary expose will be disappointed. Anderson is far more interested in exploring the turmoil of displacement and the ways it draws out the fundamental truth that man at his core is ruled by his emotions, not his capacity for reason.
That's a strange notion for such a coldhearted movie but it perfectly sums up the conundrum that is "The Master."