Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” has been on many critics’ list of potential Oscar winners, but after having seen it, I don’t feel the same way. The film tells the story of Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a man looking to find himself after World War II. He falls under the wing of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and becomes an important subject in Dodd’s quest to create a new religion. Amy Adams also appears as Dodd’s wife who fully supports her husband’s ambitions. Watch the trailer and read my review after the jump.
For the most part this film is a character study of two men with very different views on life, with one trying to change the other. Freddie is deeply traumatized from his experiences in the war and struggling to find a life beyond sex and work. Lancaster has dedicated his whole life to “The Cause” but in reality has never really worked for anything. By using big words and dressing nicely, people will listen to anything he says. Anderson tells an interesting story about how these to men interact but ultimately it is a long story that never really pays off.
Joaquin Phoenix makes a big comeback in this film. His portrayal of Freddie will certainly earn him an nomination and potential an Oscar win. He immerses himself completely into the role, and plays this struggling war hero in a very believable way. His character suffers and we see Phoenix suffer on screen, struggling to understand all the information Lancaster is throwing at him. It is one of the most genuine and amazing performances of the year.
However, Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd is a different story. It was nice to see Hoffman singing and acting all jolly, but frankly, his character was weak and Hoffman didn’t sell that enough. Without spoiling to much, as the movie progresses, there are times where “The Cause” seems to be less clear to Lancaster and he is expected to make things up on the fly. And although the characters on screen were completely engrossed by his speeches, I found them absurd and could never imagine anyone believing his randomness and lies. If Hoffman would have played the character as crazy, it may have made more sense. But since Lancaster does not care that he is being random, it is harder to tell if he knows what he is saying. Hoffman simply didn’t deliver.
This was my first Anderson film, but I have hear he is known for his cinematography. There are some amazing tracking shots in here and every set looks beautiful. There is a specific tracking shot near the beginning that follows one person for over a minute in a complex walk around a mall that leaves the viewer wondering how it was pulled off. From the look of the film alone I plan to check out more of Anderson’s films.
In the end, I was disappointed in “The Master” only because I came in with high expectations. With all the attention it was getting, I expected a better story with a more rewarding payoff. There is hardly any character development, even though the characters go through some incredible situations, and Hoffman simply gave a boring performance. I do recommend seeing this if it gets the nominations it was expected to get, but don’t be surprised if you leave with more questions than answers.