By Forrest Hartman
2 stars (out of four)
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
“The Master” is at the center of the Academy Awards race, having received a best actor nomination for its star, Joaquin Phoenix, and supporting actor nods for co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. While the performances are unquestionably fine, it’s hard to get behind the movie as a whole because of its wandering plot and unlikable characters.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who emerges from the Navy scarred and hopelessly addicted to booze, most of which he manufactures himself using dangerous chemicals like paint thinner. Mentally unstable and unable to hold a regular job, he falls under the influence of a self-appointed spiritual guru named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Dodd travels the U.S. with his wife, Peggy (Adams), and their two children, arguing that everyone has led past lives and that addressing traumas incurred in previous incarnations can solve current problems.
While the concept of an explosive, mentally ill man falling under the spell of a phony messiah is fertile ground for a movie, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t take his setup anywhere interesting. The film is surprisingly nonjudgmental in its portrayal of Dodd, who is an obvious fraud. In fact, it’s arguable that Freddie benefits from his interactions with Dodd, even though the man’s teachings are little more than manufactured hokum.
Anderson could have explored the mindset that leads people into cults or whether the mentally ill are easier targets for their charismatic leaders, and this would have been fascinating. Instead, he turns “The Master” into a sort of buddy movie, with Dodd latching onto Freddie and vice versa.
It is possible that Anderson wants viewers to see Dodd and Freddie as equally unstable. But even when read that way, the film doesn’t have much to offer. It looks beautiful, and it’s carefully put together, but there doesn’t seem to be any great message about human nature or society. Depth isn’t necessary in a movie, of course, but “The Master” isn’t particularly entertaining either. Rather, it’s a lengthy, often dull, story about two lost souls who discover each other and proceed to tread water.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include outtakes, additional scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette.