It's supposed to be a good thing when you emerge from the theater in awe of the performance you've just seen from a talented actor or actress and begin immediately thinking about the Oscars. With The Master, though, I'm not sure that's the case. Something about critically adored director Paul Thomas Anderson seems to bring out virtuoso performances from even the most unlikely Hollywood stars (see: Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love).
Probably it's just that he's an expert craftsman, and Anderson's latest film is no exception. Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are reliably brilliant. Joaquin Phoenix, who must be on screen for at least 120 of The Master's 137 minutes, is magnetic and jawdropping. And yet, the excellence of The Master seems to begin and end right there -- with the superb turns from Adams, Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a drifting World War II Navy veteran who latches on with fraudulent blowhard Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), who travels the country with his family recruiting followers for "The Cause." Dodd, who is based, not so subtly, on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, has just enough charisma and is just enough of a pseudo-intellectual to garner quite the niche following among the type of lost and wounded souls searching for an answer, any answer, to the painful human condition.
Quell, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, battling extreme alcoholism and perhaps dealing with other forms of mental illness, is especially susceptible to Dodd's spiritual snake oil salesmanship. It's obvious to anyone with a shred of skepticism that Dodd is "making it up as he goes along," as his son Val (Jesse Plemons) puts it in one scene, but there's not much room for skepticism in Freddie's world. Fueled by a sense of belonging and the potent alcohol he makes himself and cuts with paint thinner, Freddie reacts like a neglected attack dog anytime Dodd is threatened or criticized, leading to all sorts of trouble with the authorities and with those in Dodd's inner circle, especially his wife Peggy (Adams).
Eventually, Dodd's fondness for Freddie and his homemade booze isn't enough to outweigh his destructive behavior and Freddie is cast out of the Dodds' orbit and back into the type of drifting that led him from the Navy to department store photographer to migrant worker in the beginning of the film.
Anderson doesn't set out to indict Scientology, and that's a relief because The Master probably would have lost some of its punch if it did. In a weird way, by not doing so it is an indictment of Scientology and all cult-like movements with domineering frauds like Dodd at their center. There's an incredulity toward cults and cult leaders in The Master -- a look-at-who-you're-attracting-anyway tone -- that is quite satisfying. The volatile Freddie Quell is prey for Dodd and his entourage, and once they've gotten all they need out of him and he can't be controlled, he is tossed away. What he really needs is a psychologist, not someone who's going to tell him there's nothing wrong with him. There are hints at other themes too, but they are musings mostly left to your interpretation. That might work for some people, but it doesn't for me. I don't want to be bludgeoned over the head with big ideas, but neither do I want to have to come up with them almost entirely on my own. I prefer to follow a filmmaker down a meandering path, and it is here that I think Anderson falls just a little short this time around. I felt just a little too lost in the brush at times.
Still, there is so much that's great about The Master that I feel a little spoiled complaining at all. Shot after shot is gorgeous. Phoenix paints a captivating portrait of madness. It must have been draining to play a mentally ill drunk, again, especially considering the amount of screen time he had to channel that. It was certainly draining to watch a tragic figure like Quell flailing about, looking for attachment to reality and, unjustly, stumbling upon a serial hoodwinker like Dodd, his entourage either unwilling or unable to shout out that the Master has no clothes.
Back to the Academy Awards for a moment. The Master is generating a ton of Oscar buzz, and deservedly so when it comes to Phoenix and Seymour Hoffman. Best Picture, though? Not quite, at least not to me. The parts of The Master feel just a little greater than its sum, though maybe I'm just not quite smart enough to get what Anderson wanted me to.