The Master Review
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About once a year, a movie comes along that the world’s most prominent critics implore you to see. They use big, fancy, intimidating words to let you know just how brilliant it is. So, feeling the pressure to see The Greatest Movie Ever Made, you head to the theater, buy your ticket and some pricey snacks, and take your seat, only to spend the next couple of hours feeling bored and perplexed.

So, for the sake of both your wallet and your sanity, I’ll give it to you straight: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master isn’t bad—but it’s guaranteed to leave you scratching your head as you leave the theater.

Hollywood hoaxster Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a naval veteran who returns home from WWII with some serious issues. He’s a psychologist’s dream: a sex-addicted alcoholic with an overabundance of rage.

  
 
One night, after being chased away from his latest job, Freddie drunkenly climbs aboard a ship. All he wants is a place to hide and sober up—and a job would be good, too. But then he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the alluring leader of The Cause, a group that uses a kind of hypnosis to help followers get in touch with past lives, and Freddie soon finds himself welcomed into the fold.

The Master follows Freddie as he becomes a part of The Cause’s inner circle—as well as Dodd’s “guinea pig and protégé.” He’s questioned and challenged and forced to go through all kinds of treatments in an attempt to cure him of his various ailments—his alcoholism, his sex addiction, and his rage. But although he becomes fiercely devoted to the man who accepted him and believed in him when no one else would, none of the treatments ever seem to work—and it’s never really clear whether he even believes in anything that Dodd stands for.

Freddie is a pretty unlikeable character—a temperamental troublemaker whose loyalty seems to be his only redeeming quality. And Phoenix’s erratic performance makes him all the more difficult to watch. Granted, the role is sufficiently wacky for the unpredictable star, who seems to be channeling his alter-ego from I’m Still Here. Still, I’ve known a drunk or two in my day, and not one of them acted quite as strangely as Phoenix’s Freddie, with his hunched-over shuffle and his nearly unintelligible dialogue, which usually seems sneered instead of spoken.

Fortunately, though, Philip Seymour Hoffman manages to balance Phoenix out, giving an electrifying performance as Dodd. He makes this fascinating character so clever and charismatic, in fact, that you’ll have no problem believing that people would come from miles around to hear what he has to say. Dodd isn’t always calm and collected, but he’s definitely charming—and his easy-going personality and self-deprecating style make him a delight to watch.

While Hoffman may give a gripping performance, however, the film itself isn’t exactly exhilarating. Instead it’s slow and rather sleepy—and not a whole lot happens. There isn’t much of a story. The characters don’t really grow or change. And, in the end, you’ll most likely find yourself wondering if you’re missing the point—or if it even has one.

Though it makes an intriguing (and beautifully filmed) character study, The Master doesn’t delve deep enough to give the audience something with which to connect. So, in a way, it’s like a cult: on the surface, it’s alluring, but it’ll leave you feeling lost and unfulfilled.

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