TIFF Review: The Master

The Master (2012, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Oh boy.

This was, by far, the film I was most looking forward to at this year's TIFF. Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a bad film - hell, the man's never made anything less than a great film. And given what the film was, given that it supposedly did to L. Ron Hubbard what Citizen Kane did to William Randolph Hearst, given that PTA shot it in 70 mm, there was simply no way I was missing it. Eris, in her finite capricious wisdom, even graced me with a ticket to the public premiere at the relatively glorious Princess of Wales, a space normally reserved for live theater that only shows movies during the film festival.

On the surface, The Master is everything you would want and expect from a PTA film. It looks exquisite, moving from a blue ocean churning behind a ship to the Arizona desert and making everything look glorious. It does as fantastic a job of recreating the early '50s as Boogie Nights did of recreating the '70s and early '80s. The performances are uniformly outstanding, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman firing off what will probably be acclaimed an Oscar-worthy turn as the charismatic, insecure charlatan/guru (those two have always been opposite sides of the same coin) Lancaster Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix tearing into his role as Freddy, the immovable object to Hoffman's irresistible force, and Amy Adams matching those two blow for blow as Peggy, the power behind Hoffman's throne (and Amy, if you're reading this: you need to do Lady MacBeth. Like, right now. I will pay any price, airfare included, to sit in the audience and watch you perform the Damned Spot monologue on stage.)

And yet... when the screen cut finally to black, I did not have that immediate "OMG that was the greatest thing I'd ever seen" reaction I've gotten from just about every other PTA movie. In fact, I was left wondering what the point of it all was. The Master is a film about unenlightened people making a show of striving for enlightenment, so while that creates an opportunity for some acting fireworks it results in none of them really having any kind of character arc. Hoffman ends the film in the same place he started it, offering freedom to the weak while slowly putting them in chains. Adams is still the same driven woman she was at the beginning, equal parts dutiful wife and puppet master. And Phoenix... his Freddy is everything Hoffman's "Cause" decries, a laughing, fucking, drunken monkey of a man who cares nothing for bettering himself. All he really learns, by the end, is how to mimic Hoffman's attempts to indoctrinate him and turn them into a juvenile sex game.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot going on in The Master, on the surface and below it. The film does a solid job of filling in the early history of Scientology under a thin veneer of fictionalization, while the interplay between Freddy, Lancaster and Peggy so obviously represents the relationship between id, ego and superego that the Freudian... Christ, I can't even really call it 'subtext' since it's so transparent - that Freudian reading supplies a bigger fuck you to Hubbard and his legacy than anything in the actual plot of the film. Like I said, every individual part of the film, looked at in isolation, has no obvious flaws. And yet... and yet.

Maybe it's that lack of character development that creates a distance that I've never felt before in a PTA film. There was no emotional distance between me and Daniel Plainsview or Dirk Diggler. Maybe it was the lack of big moments that left me feeling wanting. There are no pudding-fueled trips to Hawaii in The Master, no rains of frogs. Nobody gets beaten to death with a bowling pin. All we get that comes close is a jailhouse shouting match. Or maybe it was the curious divide between Phoenix's overtly Method-driven style of acting, rooted so strongly in his physicality from his clenched jaw to the apparent chronic back condition that seemed to inform his movements, and Hoffman and Adams' more organic styles that prevented me from connecting fully with the movie. All I know is that when the credits started rolling, I felt the space between myself and the screen very, very keenly. I felt like I'd been lectured at, not engaged.

The Master is a film that will most likely be acclaimed as great, and I don't really have a problem with that. This isn't some banal Ron Howard piece of shit Oscar bait that folks will gush over because it's non-threatening. But, barring some big epiphany striking me, this is going to be the Paul Thomas Anderson film I revisit the least down the road.

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