A close reader of TheCroakingFrog might conclude I value character over plot. In my 2012 overall rankings, Argo—the tautest plot of the year—lost out to Django Unchained, an undisciplined story with impossibly compelling characters. I might have concluded the same until last night. The Master changed my mind, and it might change yours as well.
We first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at the close of WWII, a PTSD-afflicted soldier who looks 35 but acts like he's 16. Sex-obsessed, boyish in speech, and slouched in posture, Freddie lurches, slurs, and giggles throughout The Master. Phoenix at once grabs and repels our eyes, as we can't help but watch his tormented psyche navigate through routine conversations and ordinary human interaction. You may want to turn on subtitles to catch all the nuances of his mumbled, incomprehensible performance. Then again, you may not: there's something appropriate—and perhaps, even poetic—about his indecipherable exterior. Freddie wants desperately to be understood, but he's too afraid to let it happen.
Still, Phoenix's performance remains a quagmire. Like watching an Olympic curler, I vacillated between awe and skepticism. It's clear that Phoenix immersed himself in the character, and he certainly has a rare blend of intricate and raw theatrical skills. But the curmudgeon in me found the performance too inaccessible by half: all the complexities of the role end up competing for relevance until they crowd one another out, leaving in their place a blunt figure who is simply lost, tragic, and afraid. Perhaps this was the goal—but to me, the performance becomes less memorable as a result.
While Phoenix approaches his role with an abstract, cluttered manner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman brings a precise, commanding presence, delivering each line with the exactness of a presidential address. Playing Lancaster Dodd (a fictionalized version of Scientology inventor L. Ron Hubbard), Hoffman wraps both his fellow characters and the viewing audience around his short, stubby finger, a psychological trick as seductive as it is frightening. Occasionally, a skeptic sidesteps his hypnosis, challenging Dodd on his cult-like assertions. Here, Hoffman flips to his patented form of outrage: a quivering, restrained deliberateness twice as effective as any screaming tantrum (See Mission: Impossible III…he's by far the best part). Watch Hoffman's hand shake, almost imperceptibly, as he confronts a doubter in a room full of believers. Haunting.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) pairs his two leads with beautifully-shot, visually-intricate cinematography. Like AMC's Mad Men, every single frame of the film constitutes a work of art, with playful contrasts between foreground and background, suitably uncomfortable close-ups, and fascinating experimentation with perspective. Late in the film, as Dodd subjects Freddie to a series of tests, interrogations, and rote physical exercises, the scenes flip more and more rapidly. Our view of the action becomes unpredictable, and at times, even jarring. Anderson creates a distinct emotional tone with every scene, an accomplishment as effective as it is impressive.
If only he'd also bothered to create a plot. Serving as both The Master's director and writer, Anderson seems far more concerned with producing feelings than bothering with rising or falling action. A 2012 favorite for my patented "Emperor's New Clothes Award" (see #3), The Master's final hour makes about as much narrative sense as Freddie's mumbling.
In fairness, some films with limited narrative structure do work extraordinarily well. My favorite 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale—a brisk, 81-minute glimpse at family disintegration through divorce—contains no clear hero, quest, resolution, or wise-and-bearded guiding mentor. Instead, the movie presents a compelling web of relationships, makes its intentions fairly clear from the outset (the scenes are raw, quick, and efficient), and the whole thing ends sooner than a Pixar summer blockbuster. Whale offers us a contract early on—you're watching a moment in time, not a story—and honors its end of the deal.
In contrast, The Master can't seem to decide how to write the contract in the first place. We encounter wisps of an emerging story in the first hour—the advent of Scientology, a burgeoning mentor-apprentice friendship, steps toward psychological healing—only to discard these strands as the film trundles into its third hour. Losing this narrative context proves disastrous for the film, undermining even its best elements. Without a solid frame of reference, Phoenix and Hoffman's spellbinding characters begin to lose their magic. Sure, Freddie is crazy and Dodd masterful, but for what reasons? And why? And so what?
So it is that The Master, with its world-class performances and gorgeous visuals, spoils its chance at immortality. If you're going to write a long book, you've got to give readers a reason to turn the page. Even Peter Jackson knows that.