P.T. Anderson is, indisputably, one of the finest working directors alive. He has the technical expertise that almost no one can touch and a handle on characterization that most will kill for. There Will Be Blood is a cinematic masterpiece. Boogie Nights and Magnolia are almost equally impressive and in some ways speak more to Anderson’s perfection. With The Master, expectations run high. The film will likely sink under the weight of those own expectations. This is simultaneously the culmination of P.T. Anderson defining what he is as a filmmaker while being unlike anything else he has ever done. It is not a simple film. It is not a film that those who seek to praise it will even enjoy, in my opinion. This is a harsh movie that tosses aside everything we as an audience expect from a film. The film does not rise and fall. Traditional story structure does not apply here. There is no climax. There is no resolution. It is important to note that what we see on screen is simply a slice of existence presented to us for dissection, not a true narrative. There is no beginning, middle, or end. There is simply a swath of reality presented in 70mm that seeks to test what we know about film as an artistic storytelling medium.
Let me start out by saying that this is an acting showcase. Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely stunning here. He transforms himself in almost every possible way. His speech, his stance, his walk, his nervous tics, his breathing, his movement, all coalesce into a very real character. He is a broken mess of a man in body, mind, and spirit. He is a traumatized puppy let loose from an overcrowded shelter into the harsh world with only the skills given to him from the life that broke him in the first place. He attempts to fit in but he is a puzzle piece in the wrong jigsaw. His perception of the world around him is not the world as it is and his perception of himself is at the same time startlingly inaccurate and also spot on. He knows what he is but at the same time does not understand the implications of what that means or why his differences matter. He is a simple man. His mind’s basic animal nature, embodied by his fascination and obsession with sex, forces the audience to keep their distance and never truly grasp or empathize with him as a protagonist. Instead the audience takes on the role of the anthropological observer, trying to take in what we see and make sense of the findings.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is more readily understandable a character as the charismatic leader of “The Cause” in Lancaster Dodd. He is a man who does not believe in his own system. He is a con man. He is weak and he is afraid of failure. When confronted with contrarian ideas he loses his concentration and reverts to the rough animal underside of the human existence that he so vividly campaigns against. At the same time he treats those who would follow him, especially Phoenix, as one would treat an animal. His “pet talk” of admonishing Phoenix’s character as a “naughty boy” when he has done wrong and the affable praise of “good boy” when he has done something admirable, as well as the repeated back and forth resistance training in Phoenix’s indoctrination into the ideas of the “cause” show that he is feeding a pack of lies to his underlings. When he flip-flops on the wording of his own doctrine and is questioned about it by a devout follower, he again looses his calm demeanor and reverts to unrestrained animal rage. He admits, in his own words, that casting a wider net to capture more minds is more important than the purity of the doctrine.
I will not deny that as a character study the film is absolutely mesmerizing. The “processing” scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are enthralling. But the film has greater issues at play. Mainly that the film itself never feels fully realized. Phoenix’s character is simple enough that we can grasp what we need to from him within moments of meeting him. He is awkward and he will never fit in. He won’t fit in with the Navy. He won’t fit in at work. He won’t fit in the ranks of the “cause.” His lack of an arc is very much the point of the film entirely. Hoffman however suffers from the film’s static state. His arc does not work because we as an audience don’t see how he got to a point where he believed in his own lies enough to abandon that belief in search of legitimacy. We see that Phoenix prompts a change in him but we do not know precisely what he changed from and where he was as a man before that. We know that “The Master” has fooled his supporters into following him blindly but it feels like there is a whole story that happened before this film occurred that we aren’t privy to that would give us a better idea of what is in play.
As I said at the start of this review, the film is simply a slice of reality. The narrative is only loosely structured and our central focus has no arc. The arc occurs in the background and neither character receives any sort of resolution. The film simply ends. There is no rise, there is no climax, there is no tension. This film, to me, is like watching the waves of the ocean wash against the shoreline. There is a slow melody to it but nothing of ascertainable substance. It is like watching a recording of nature, of animals interacting. It is endlessly fascinating to watch the interactions of what is presented but at the end of the credits you can’t help but feel that what transpired was ultimately empty, and perhaps that was the point. Perhaps that was a statement that P.T. Anderson wanted to make on the nature of new-age religion. Perhaps it was a statement on life. There are plenty of thematic elements within the film to incite several heated discussions but as a film I believe it ultimately fails because of the manner in which it disregards story structure in favor of an abstract lack of narrative flow. On some level there needs to be an emotional resonance to the characters’ story, some investment in their fate or the film feels like it was a waste. With There Will Be Blood, I never truly empathized with Daniel Plainview but I felt an emotional response to his story. There was pity and there was understanding. Joaquin Phoenix was simply too detached for me to latch onto and Hoffman was fully realized as a character but somehow still lacked that element of understanding for the audience to invest in. We don’t know what drove him to become what he became and so the title character of this film is somehow out of our reach as well.
As a film, The Master is not cohesive enough to be considered a success on the level that I believe P.T. Anderson was striving toward. The acting and the technical proficiency of the filmmaking is not to be disputed but a dramatic film requires some form of narrative and though the threads are there are enough elements missing that the film as a whole suffers. There is much to discuss here and that gives the film merit but it is definitely a missed opportunity in many regards. The talent on hand dictates that there is a better film to be made here and that saddens me. This should have been something that was taught in film classes for being the perfect storm of material, actors, and craftsmen but instead it will likely be dissected as how a loss of focus and form can sink an otherwise wonderful film.