At the start of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s superb 2008 feature, there is very little dialogue. We just observe a man attempting to get oil from the ground. Some oil splashes onto the camera lens. A deliberate decision by Anderson and his cinematographer, one assumes. Does it remind the viewer they are watching a work of fiction, or does it make them feel as if their eyes have just been muddied with the product of this man’s income? A subjective question to say the least. The Master also starts with barely any dialogue. We also get a splash of something on the lens; in this instance it is water. Is this Anderson referencing his previous work or is it just a coincidence? The fact that this question remains unanswered is understandable. If it is a nod, it is an elusive one, and it’s quite a fun part for PTA lovers to notice. But there are many other pressing questions within the master that are never answered. And I didn’t find the ambiguity fun. I found the entire experience a dull, depressing, dusty experience.
The Master doesn’t contain the genius that made Anderson’s There Will Be Blood a masterpiece. That film was a force of nature, driven by an astonishing performance by Daniel Day Lewis. The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix as a young ex-soldier who has returned from fighting in World War II. He isn’t very nice. He is violent, uncouth, unfriendly and aimless in his life. But then he becomes involved in a cult known as The Cause, run by an intelligent, manipulative man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his already unpleasant world is turned upside down.
Phoenix has the potential to be a great actor, but his performance here comes across as self-indulgent and very actorish. It’s overdone and lacks subtlety and believability. Philip Seymour Hoffman is typically excellent, as is Amy Adams as his passionately loyal wife, but their characters never really evolve. Their performances feel very one-note, and I believe that fault lies with the underdeveloped script.
Those expecting Scientology: The Movie will hopefully have already discovered that the film is nothing of the kind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the drama seems strangely devoid of purpose. We are kept at a distance from the true details of the cult in the film – perhaps so we can empathise with the central character a little more – but the overall impression is wishy-washy and irritating rather than menacing.
I wasn’t as taken with Johnny Greenwood’s discordant score as I was with his efforts for previous films. His shifts from perfect to imperfect cadences generate mood to a point, but in the end they just add to the awkward and pretentious feel to the picture as a whole.
The Master looks impressive, and a handful of performances save it from being completely dire. But many people will praise it and hail it as a masterpiece simply because Paul Thomas Anderson directed it. I get the feeling he could make anything and people will dub it a modern classic simply because he is a big name in intelligent American cinema. I wish I could join in with the fawning this time round, but I have to be honest and say that, in my opinion, The Master is a weak and tragically flawed film. And far too long.
The Master (2012), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment Film Distributors, Certificate 15.