Paul Thomas Anderson's approach to storytelling isn't for everyone. Magnolia is one of my favorite movies. There Will Be Blood was difficult to sit through (thank you, 21st century, for ruining my attention span), but it sat with me for days. Punch-Drunk Love surprised me and was a victim of improper advertising. Boogie Nights was, well, Boogie Nights.
With The Master, Anderson has again reformulated his own affecting style. The quasi-Scientology based movie (it's still confusing whether or not Anderson was attempting a satyrical commentary on the "religion" or not) is a showcase of cinematography, cinematic music, and two of the year's best performances.
Joaquin Phoenix stars here as Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran whose life is in shambles after returning from war. Uncertain of his future, other than the fact that he likes to drink and he wants to know a lady in the biblical sense, Quell stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (played with force by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his trusty band of followers. The group/cult known as The Cause engage in exercises built to clear the emotions. After some insightful meetings/cleansings with Dodd, Quell is hooked. His emotional connection, though, doesn't necessarily mean his life and tribulations are anymore fixed than they would be without this sudden influx of a "family".
Anderson pulled together an impressive cast and crew. On top of Phoenix and Hoffman's Venice Film Festival-winning performances, Amy Adams provides the deeply connected and supportive wife of Dodd. Laura Dern shows up as one of Dodd's most prolific followers. One of the best scenes involves Dodd reaching one of his many breaking points with Dern's Helen Sullivan. It's an uncomfortable, social experiment, as is the whole movie.
Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead's lead guitarist, again treats Anderson's film to an enrapturing orchestration that's both classic cinema and irreverently over-the-top, in the best way.
The movie, which has received some pretty strong, standard Oscar buzz, is really an actor's movie. Phoenix and Hoffman are so enveloped in their characters that it's easy to forget these are actors and not characters in a twisted, lovely documentary. Anderson provides his signature truth to the storytelling, even if that includes eyebrow-raising, uncomfortable scenes. I was both enthralled in the performances, and exhausted as a part of Quell's life and journey.
There were moments the movie felt a little long (it's running time is over 2 hours), but I think that's part of the process.
I haven't been able to get the story, the setting, or the emotional pull out of my head since I left the theatre. Which is the point, I think.
This movie will definitely show up in awards season. It'll be interesting, though, to see how the actors are split. Is it possible to award Phoenix and Hoffman with the Best Actor prize together?
Runtime: 2 hours, 17 minutes