Five years after There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with The Master, a drama loosely based on the founding of Scientology. The movie stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix as master and apprentice, respectively, and while they turn in powerful, Oscar-worthy performances, the final result is a drawn out, even boring film.
There is no question that Paul Thomas Anderson is a great director, and a great writer. As he has shown throughout his career, even his lesser films (the Adam Sandler-starring drama Punch-Drunk Love) are a step above most. Through his writing and craft he is able to bring out the very best in actors (Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood), and enthrall based on subtleties and nuance.
The Master is unequivocally a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and for that it should be recognized. Anderson takes his time painting the complex and troubled character that is Freddie Quell (Phoenix), relying on the scene and the actor to fill in the fine details. Freddie's story is alluring, even before he is drawn into the clutches of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, who believes that for humanity to achieve greatness people must connect with their past lives.
Like There Will Be Blood, Anderson's masterpiece among masterpieces, The Master is a slow boil film. The first several scenes, which take Freddie from his lost final weeks in the Pacific during World War II to a variety of thankless and unimportant jobs, are intoxicating. Phoenix commands every moment he's on screen, and when pitted against Hoffman, whose character is friendly and adaptable until disagreed with or offended, sparks fly.
But unlike There Will Be Blood, the slow boil never explodes. The Master didn't need to mount to the same intensity that There Will Be Blood had, but Anderson loses sight of the goal of his film in the final act, whatever that goal may be. The story begins to meander and the character arcs suffer as a result. Most importantly, The Master becomes boring. At 137 minutes, the movie felt like it was three hours long. I kept thinking the film was going to end, but then Anderson dragged it on for another several scenes.
The Master is gorgeous and features a great score by Johnny Greenwood. Anderson hits all the technical marks. Joaquin Phoenix, in his first role since his faux retirement four years ago, is incredible and Philip Seymour Hoffman is great. Amy Adams turns in a fine supporting role. But The Master loses its way and as a result it lost my attention. That's a sin I'm unwilling to forgive.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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