The Master is a film where many recognized critics suffer from the Ingmar Bergman syndrome, namely a requirement of universal praise for fear of being perceived as being artistically inept. But a profoundly tedious film is still a profoundly tedious film.
While this will sound shocking for those of you who have closely followed its laudatory reviews, the sad fact is that The Master is a disaster. It is tedious, overstuffed, overlong and repetitive to the very end.
Sure, I was one of many who loved Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007). But having suffered through The Master, Mr. Anderson seems to have tragically morphed into a Terrance Malik-like director. You can gush over Malik’s movies like The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) all you want, but he seems to have forgotten the fundamental fact that films have to entertain in some fashion. Mr. Anderson’s The Master suffers from that same malady.
That is not to say that the film lacks several extraordinary performances. In particular Joaquin Phoenix is sensational as an alcoholic suffering from profound mental and emotional problems in 1950 following his service in the Pacific during World War II. He is angry, disconnected and profoundly lacking purpose until he accidentally bumps into a mysterious cult leader named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
For about half the film Mr. Hoffman is equally brilliant, playing Mr. Dodd as an L. Ron Hubbard-type charismatic preacher of a neo-science new mythology. However, the last half of the film, a very long last half, has the duo doing little but the same thing they performed earlier, and it begins to wear extraordinarily thin in every respect.
As his wife, even the talented Amy Adams is completely lost in this self-satisfied plot. She does very little other than express her commitment to her husband and her suspicion of Mr. Phoenix, and this may be her most forgettable performance in an otherwise distinguished career.
Director Anderson purports to bring us a film loosely premised on the complexities surrounding Scientology, but he exchanges a pursuit of fundamental intricacies for banal trivialities. As an example, Hoffman strangely all but adopts Phoenix as a loyal follower, choosing to ignore his physical brutality of anyone who opposes Hoffman. On the other hand, he does take full advantage of Phoenix’s one identifiable talent, namely consuming at will his exotic moonshine products.
While Peter Travers of Rolling Stone has characterized the film the same way Richard Corliss of Time described The Beast of the Southern Wild, namely “A masterpiece,” they had to be drinking some of Phoenix’s wild concoctions when they saw these films. In particular, there is a tragically pathetic scene where Hoffman is singing to a houseful of middle-aged followers, causing all of the women to dance to his off-key melodies in their shoes completely naked. This included a side shot of Ms. Adams sitting naked in a chair while six months pregnant, and I simply can’t understand how similar scenes in Killer Joe were so rabidly condemned by many viewers while this sad scene largely escaped satire.
At the heart of this film’s failure was the sad fact that there was simply no one to root for, much less like. Everyone was either sick, demented or dedicated to exploiting their fellow man to make an unjustified buck. And if you remotely doubt me, look for the repeated scenes of Mr. Phoenix and the artificial female torso carved on some unknown beach.
Let me put it this way. Hoffman’s cult encouraged all followers to delve into the life of the spirit inhabiting their bodies to see where they have previously been throughout the eons. Quite frankly, I started to regret that I wasn’t pursuing this cult myself about halfway through the film, as I couldn’t help but believe that this was my punishment for some long ago forgotten transgression.