7 April 2013 | secondtake
A smart, visually keen, very compelling movie in the largest sense, and yet...
The Master (2012)
A remarkably felt movie. If it ends up describing a kind of small, insidious, sometimes sincere cult set mostly in 1950s America, it does so by showing and leading and drawing the viewer in. That is, this is a terrific movie, a cinematic kind of tale. There is (thankfully) no voice-over, no subtitles, no factual help. And it's all perfectly clear. In its way, it summons up the period as well as the different but equally compelling "Revolutionary Road."
Joaquin Phoenix is amazing as Freddie Quell, a deeply troubled but unusually savvy ex-sailor with some unsolved sexual needs but mostly a shifting inner sense of self and of confidence. He is cocky as hell and uncomfortable, too. He is unpredictable, and he knows he's not quite stable but doesn't know how to find stability.
When he stumbles onto the small ship with this strange, peaceful cult harbored and digging into their growing religious philosophy he is puzzled but also welcomed. Especially by the leader, the Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (His wife, well portrayed by Amy Adams, is more skeptical, but she keeps an eye on everyone throughout the film and at times seems to actually be the true master.) Hoffman is terrific, a great match for Phoenix. They have many key scenes with just the two of them in formal or informal conversation and interview, and to watch their faces and little gestures is a lesson in great acting. And it makes for great a great movie.
Almost. What brings everything down a notch or two is the the second half of the movie doesn't live up to the visceral, lyrical, intellectual highs of the first. In fact, you might even wonder if anything further happens of significance toward the end, except for the ending itself and the final conversation between the two leads. It's a subtle but steady disappointment as things continue, realizing there will be no further major turns or new characters or new ideas, just a slight swelling of what is already there.
It's all so well done and the established roles and still enjoyable. The movie as a whole is satisfying, for sure. But you might easily agree that it had the beginnings of something really special, one of the rare ones that would rise and turn and continue to impress all the way through, and then again and again.
But I don't think is makes it, and so what's left is a terrific, subtle impression of how a small cult might grow into a big one. The basis of this, Scientology, is pretty right on, but I think the idea of a small group of slightly misplaced, or slightly needy people (that might be most of us) finding some hope and peace and purpose with each other, is pretty common. That is grows around a personality or two like this one does is probably the step that defines what kind of cult you end up with. Are cults bad? Do they sucker their members? This movie doesn't judge. It just shows with a hint of realization how it might actually happen.
Beautifully done at its best. Some rare moments here worth seeing. And the director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson (check his creds) is increasingly impressive.