A troubled Naval veteran returns from war and finds himself befriended by the leader of a cult-like movement in The Master.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a World War II veteran from the Navy that has an increasing problem with drinking homemade concoctions, involving chemicals and substances that most will cringe at. Freddie finds odd jobs, notably as a department store photographer and cabbage farmer, but his drinking gets him into trouble. One evening, he wanders onto the boat chartered by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is quickly taken by Quell and uses Quell’s fragile state of mind to help mold his pseudo-religious movement, The Cause.
I have struggled with how I am going to write my review of The Master (also part of the reason why I am writing the review now, over a week after seeing it). First, let’s discuss the things that I know I liked and can be universally recommended. Everything about The Master on a technical level is a remarkable achievement. The cinematography, the editing, the thrumming soundtrack, and perhaps most of all, the acting. Both Hoffman and Phoenix (and even Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife) give groundbreaking performances here. I’ve seen several derisive comments about Phoenix’s role not being too far from when we last saw him in I’m Still Here, but he is an actor, and I will defend that he is a powerhouse in The Master.
I will also say that I was thoroughly engrossed with The Master from the opening frame and well after the film ended I was still contemplating my thoughts on the film. My mother asked me what I thought of it “I don’t know…” I said, as I trailed off without being able to expound on my thoughts. My biggest issue with the film is that nothing is presented in a clear manner, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except the film is too nebulous for its own good some of the time. Character’s motives and thoughts are strongly hinted at but never developed in a manner that satiated me and the result is a film that doesn’t seem to quite come out from the fog of one of Quell’s hangovers.
If you asked me if I liked The Master I would now instantly be able to say “yes” without hesitation. My problems with the narrative did not hold the film back from being something tremendous, but it does make for a slightly frustrating experience. I would not be able to easily recommend The Master, though. In the theater I was in, I was the youngest viewer by around 15 years, I would guess, and I was surprised that some of the people didn’t walk out when Quell was behaving in completely bizarre ways at the beginning of the film. The people I expected to walk out were thoroughly confused by the film by the end, and loudly voiced their dissent as the credits rolled.
The Master is a divisive film; you will likely love it or hate it and in that respect, I consider it this year’s Tree of Life. There’s a wonderful film here but it is held back by it’s own persistence in not giving us a full story. The film seems to want to tell the origins of Scientology but doesn’t, though it does offer some perspective on conditioning. If The Master had only been a bit more straightforward with its intentions, I really think the film would be undeniably amazing but as it is now, it’s a mixed bag that would be hard to recommend for all viewers.
I give it 4 Torpedo Juice cocktails out of 5.