When Ben Affleck won Best Director at the Golden Globes, he seemed genuinely honored during his speech to win among such great directors, and then compared the director of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson, to Orson Welles. Anderson is definitely talented, and is a much different director than Affleck.
Affleck is like Clint Eastwood - he's turning into a director that understands the elements of good storytelling and delivers them in a pleasing way. That's not to say he's making simplistic movies, because Gone Baby Gone was a complex story with an ending that gives the audience a lot to think about, but he isn't creating movies likely to have multiple interpretations. He lays his cards on the table, and he wants to entertain.
Anderson is more like a novelist. He's also adept at storytelling, but he gives you a bit more to chew on. Maybe he'll entertain you with the story, maybe he'll entertain you with the performances of his actors. Or maybe he won't entertain you at all, but he'll give you something to talk about. This is true for The Master. The movie is essentially about a relationship between two men, but if Anderson is making a statement through this relationship, it's got layers.
I have really enjoyed some of Paul Thomas Anderson's past movies...Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia. I never saw Punch-Drunk Love. I didn't enjoy There Will Be Blood...I appreciated it but didn't like it. The Master falls somewhere in between. I have not decoded the layers.
Part of the problem with this movie lies in its pre-release buzz. There were rumors that it was some sort of condemnation and expose of Scientology, and that elicited some strong reactions in people. Anderson himself has said that he did a tremendous amount of research on Scientology to help him create this movie, but it IS NOT about Scientology. It's about two men. One of these men, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has created his own religion, and he's clearly a fraud, but that is only a component of the story. Dodd has a pathological need to be loved and respected, and finds an unusual challenge in a WWII vet named Freddie Quell who stows away on Dodd's boat.
Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), has problems, major problems. Likely unstable even before the war, he joins the Navy where he learns to make moonshine with the precision of a chemist. After returning from the Pacific, he is an angry alcoholic with PTSD issues, impulse control issues, and can't-keep-a-job issues. He's got so many issues that the folks with the fake religion can barely tolerate him. But Dodd can't cast him out, maybe for the challenge of making Freddie love him. That and Freddie's moonshine.
Hoffman, Phoenix, and Amy Adams, who plays Hoffman's wife, are all nominated for Oscars. Adams does a fine job, Hoffman is great, but Phoenix gives a performance that should unquestionably win Best Actor if it weren't for Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. I thought DDL was a slam dunk in this category, and he probably still is, but Phoenix creates an underweight, stooped-over character in such emotional pain that it made me cringe more than Joaquin Phoenix as a rapper. If this was a non-DDL year, he would win.
That's what I enjoyed most about this movie - the performances. The interplay between Hoffman and Phoenix was phenomenal, especially in the scenes where Hoffman is trying to indoctrinate Phoenix into "The Cause."
But what did the characters learn (not sure)? How did the characters change (don't know that they did)? Did we travel from Point A to Point B, or did we stay in the same place (there was some boat travel, and some passage through time, but other than that...)? I was left with all these questions. I don't know that I needed a Ben Affleck ending, all tied up in a bow, but I wanted something more than what I got. I'm giving The Master a $7.00.
Next post: It looks like Life of Pi is disappearing from theaters, and I'm starting to realize that there are very important award categories that the Oscars have neglected.