★ ★ 1/2
Where to begin? Well, let’s start with this: When P.T. Anderson is “on,” he’s on fire; when he’s “off,” he has missed the mark by a mile. As much as I wanted this film to fall under the former half of my opinion on his career, it sadly, fell under the latter.
The Master is loosely (can I really even say that?) based on L. Ron Hubbard and his cult-like religion of scientology. Rather than saying the word “scientology”, we get “the cause”; rather than “auditing”, we get “processing”, and so on. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a repertoire actor in P.T.’s films by this point, plays the part of Lancaster Dodd (i.e. L. Ron Hubbard), a self-professed philosopher, doctor, writer, raconteur, etc. He has a group of followers who abide closely to his ideals and processes, which include breaking yourself from your past lives through the method of “processing”, and other pseudo-psychological means. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), is an ex-seaman, having served in the Navy during World War II, who not only harbors a good deal of agression, but also has an unhealthy drinking problem and some mental instability. By chance, Quell stows away on a yacht that Dodd is borrowing for his daughter’s (Ambyr Childers) wedding, and the two strike an odd friendship, ultimately leading to Quell becoming one of Dodd’s most devout followers. The remainder of the film follows each of these bizarre personalities as they weave in and out of each other’s lives.
There are elements of this film that work, but for the most part, this is a large, disjointed mess. Yes, the cinematography is beautiful, and, yes, Joaquin Phoenix gives a wonderful performance (despite the fact that I hated his character with a passion). But, all in all, this film is all over the place. It’s just one big, pretentious, boring mess, and it hurts when I see someone as talented as P.T. Anderson put out such a horrid film as this. This guy gave us Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood for Christ’s sake! However, he’s also given us Punch-Drunk Love, which for me, was a big turd. One point of note that is a great high point for this film, however, that must get due mention, is Amy Adam’s knockout performance as Dodd’s fourth wife, Peggy. She definitely deserves a nod from the Academy for this one, and I’ll honestly be very surprised if she doesn’t.
Bottom line: don’t go see this film. Save yourself the time, the money and, most of all, the disappointment of seeing a respected director create such a terrible mess of a film.