Second World War veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to get to grips with civilian life five years after the end of the war. Obsessed with sex and with a severe drink problem he stows aboard a boat after leaving yet another job. The boat he is on is home to a party being thrown by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd known as The Master takes an interest in the wondering mind of Freddie and introduces him to ‘The Cause’, a philosophical group that Dodd controls. The Master attempts to control Freddie’s drink problem and bring him deeper into his inner circle, often against the wishes of those closest to him.
I’d been looking forward to The Master for months having heard great things from festivals and then its US release. I feel really disappointed then that I walked out of the cinema feeling tired and underwhelmed. Despite many positives the film went nowhere and felt slow and dull.
Starting with the positives of which there are many, the film looks beautiful. The cinematography, set design and whole look is stunning. The film magnificently captures the early 1950s look. Director Paul Thomas Anderson never has a problem with crafting a film which looks good but I have to question the substance. There Will be Blood is one of my favourite films looks wise but it, like this is long and dull. With both films you get the feeling that you will be ultimately rewarded but unlike Blood, the reward never comes here. The film drags along, trying to find somewhere to go but goes around and around in circles before falling flat and staying still. As well as the beautiful visuals the film sounds absolutely incredible. The soundtrack was one of my favourite things. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is becoming a hot property when it comes to film scores with the likes of Norwegian Wood and There Will be Blood already behind him he excels himself here with a fantastic score. It reminded me of a Noir detective thriller at times, featuring plenty of double bass and wood block combining with woodwind. Four songs from the era are also used to great effect.
One of the great strengths is the acting. There are three stunning performances but it is Joaquin Phoenix who steals the show with his mesmerising, out of control performance. Phoenix kept reminding me of a mixture between early DeNiro and Michael Shannon. He goes all out for his role and isn’t afraid of going over the top when required. I’m sure he must have hurt himself in a couple of scenes too. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance would usually be show stopping but is slightly overshadowed by his co-star’s more in your face showing. Hoffman on the contrary to Phoenix delivers an extremely controlled and managed performance. He is charismatic and strong but is also able to fade in to the background and observe when necessary. At the push of a button though he is able to increase his presence and come to the fore. Amy Adams could easily be overlooked behind the two leads but she too is excellent, her character often seemingly like the puppet master behind the scenes. Someone else I liked was Rami Malek who was more than solid.
Back to the problems though. Despite the links with Scientology and the fact that the film is meant to be loosely based upon the life of L.Ron Hubbard amongst other things, I don’t feel as though I learned anything new about the cult or gained any sort of insight as to their beliefs or practices. As I’ve previously mentioned I also found the film really dull. There were vast tracks of time where things were happening but they weren’t at all interesting. As a character study the film is a success but there is a severe lack of plot. I have no problem with films which are slow or take their time to go where they are going but this doesn’t go anywhere. I saw the film on my own so will probably end up watching it again with my girlfriend; I just hope I get more from it the second time around.