Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Despite excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, The Master lacks the ability to answer any of its own questions or choose a direction in which to take the story.
The subject of this film, which is not-so-loosely based on the development of Scientology, is never fully-explored. The enigma surrounding this religion-based cult doesn't generate an overwhelming sense of interest, as it is almost completely left to the viewer to comprehend what it even is, or what practical application it has to those involved. Is this the intention, to ridicule this so-called "religion" by trivializing its every meaning and development? Being familiar with Anderson's style, I would not be surprised, and if that is the case, he did a brilliant job at doing just that. But that doesn't make it good.
And this is just one aspect of the story which is never explained, explored, or even necessary in a lot of ways. The relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman's character is never made quite clear. Why were these two so drawn to each other? The movie never makes that understood. The performances are fantastic, but what do they mean? The script allows for very little development, and though the actors do a brilliant job at embodying the characters, they are given very little else to do with them. Within the first few minutes we are given an inside look at how depraved Phoenix's character is, but from that point on, very little else is revealed of his nature. As the film progresses, we are constantly reminded of just how warped he is, but to what end? We are already fully aware of his depravity, as these reminders eventually become more of an unnecessarily vulgar nuisance than a necessity. Hoffman, as the founder of The Cause, is every bit as enigmatic as the belief system he has manufactured, and Adams, though compelling in her role as Hoffman's wife, reveals very little about herself apart from the adamant support she has for her husband. No amount of great acting can save these characters from being the one-dimensional statues the script presents them as. Which is really this film's most critical flaw: the writing, which is far too sprawling, meandering, and ambiguous for its own good.
The narrative's complete lack of focus makes the story feel almost incidental, just used as a vehicle to support the brilliant acting. With every change of setting, the focus of the movie shifts. It starts as a look into the mind of a degenerate, and switches its focus more to Hoffman as it evolves into the development of a cult, the reactions this cult has on its audience, and spends the next hour (or thereabouts) doing absolutely nothing, until eventually bringing focus back onto Phoenix again, as he spends the last 30 minutes continuing to do the exact same things he had been doing for the entire rest of the story. Much of this film plays out like a string of loosely-connected vignettes centered on undeveloped and often unlikable characters. Most movies progress through a story and develop their characters as they play out. This one does not.
Aside from its defects and lack of resolve, I admire the film's ambition, as well as the technical savvy put into creating it. From the opening shot, I was mesmerized. This film has impressive visuals and a great musical score to accompany them. The music, set design, cinematography, and acting (among many other aspects) are all tremendous. A genuine onslaught of the senses, both good and bad. I often had trouble looking away, despite my urge to do just that. But in the end, it all amounts to little more than a shallow, vapid shell of a movie without a decent script to help keep it on track.
Allow me to make this perfectly clear; I did not enjoy this movie at all. But due to my undying devotion to Paul Thomas Anderson, I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. This film had the potential to be a great character drama, but squandered it in exchange for gratuitous crudity, lack of development, and meandering narrative resulting in a complete lack of pay-off. I think at its core there is a great movie to be found here. But I didn't see it. What I saw was indistinct, abrasive, unpleasant, and inconsequential.