Bottomline: This is a pretty darn long movie that takes itself way too seriously to be as 'deep' or 'heartfelt' as it tries to be.
I must say, I am as unsure about how to write this review as I am about The Master. I saw the trailers which said things like "★★★★" and 'This was the best movie of the year and of my life!!!!', so naturally, I went into this movie with my high hopes. I've heard that to be a more serious critic, one has to remain neutral. That way, if it is a disappointing flick, then the disappointment doesn't mar the review. Oppositely, if one is expecting garbage and he or she watches slightly-better-than-garbage the review will be particularly positive.
Anyway, that isn't what happened here. I went in with my hopes up high. It had been, after all, a while since I saw a really good movie in theaters. Not a fun popcorn movie, mind you, but a well-made, powerful film. That's where I ran into some trouble and, quite frankly, I am a little embarrassed. It's like every time I have a glass of wine.
"How is it?"
But where does that leave me with movies and, more importantly, The Master? I spent a good half of it mystified by all the supposed 'cinema' on the screen. My preconceived notions about it prevented me from seeing the mediocrity before my eyes. It reminded me of; I believe it was, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The big news was men's gymnastics. Could the American pull off the perfect vault to take the gold away from the Chinese? He did the perfect jump and won the gold. Afterwards the scoring was examined and it turns out the judges set his base score too high. If his score was set correctly, it would have been impossible for him to win. My experience with The Master was similar. My bar was set too high for it to lose. About halfway through, I started to doubt things and because of this, I feel I can write this review with a sound disposition. Now, let me tell you a little about the movie.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd who has developed a "Method"/Religion/Cult/Scientology. A person's soul is eternal and passes from body to body. By accessing the memories of a previous life, a person can be healed physically and mentally of ailments. Enter Freddie Quell (Pheonix). He is a wayward bootlegger who formerly served as a sailor in WWII. He is a drunk (drinking everything from champagne to his homemade "potion") with a quick and violent temper. Dodd vows to save Quell from himself, in part, because Dodd remembers the drunk from somewhere. The story follows the interactions between Quell, the Dodd family as they tour the US to promote this religion.
Philip Seymour Hoffman acted the heck out of this movie but I wonder if he just did this to accentuate his character. Dodd bombastically dominates every room he enters and he tries to connect with Quell but we never truly see what is hiding below that gregarious personality. There were a couple points where he lashes out so we know that there is more to him but we never get to see it.
It has been a long time since I've seen Joaquin Phoenix and he has a pretty good performance. I don't fault him that his character was somewhat lacking.
There are a lot of moments in The Master where we are supposed to be shocked and I think that is a major reason for this to be considered a 'deep' movie. It tries to be tasteful and edgy in its shocks. For example, Quell is in a bathroom and he nonchalantly drinks aftershave (or cologne). Alright, sure, if you do that once and them build on it, I'm fine. The story carries on and, oh, there he goes again, this time he is drinking paint thinner. It isn't that I don't like this type of shock, but I am left wanting. If I just want to be shocked, I'll go watch some Serbian film, I'm sure they'll have something.
By the final minutes of the film, I was tired of trying to buy into Anderson's vision. I knew I was supposed to be brought to tears because Pheonix was crying. That's how you know it's a good movie, right? When you are brought to tears at the end. I wanted to cry at the end. I tried to well up a few tears but I couldn't.
Overall, I wouldn't really recommend going to see this in theaters. Maybe once it goes through the second run theaters or comes out on Blu-Ray.