A winning film must succeed in three essential categories: production, performance, and plot. The Master scores highly in first two categories, but falters in the third. Surely, one may ask, a nomadic cult, a disturbed World War II veteran, and a lost love create the perfect recipe for an enthralling story? The answer should be yes – I wanted it to be yes – but the payoff never came.
The plot instead meanders like its erratic man-child lead, Freddie Quell, whose issues extend well beyond his time at war. Joaquin Phoenix seems an odd choice for the character. Many times throughout the film he is referred to as “boy,” and the love of his life is a 16-year-old girl. But Joaquin appears to be well-weathered forty, and, unfortunately, the suspension of disbelief can only extend so far when it comes to age. He needed to be twenty years younger for the audience to sympathize with Freddie’s romance rather than feel relief at his failure to consummate it.
Joaquin’s exaggerated body language does not help. He hunches over with severe scoliosis and juts his elbows out at his sides with his hands on his hips – thumbs placed in an unnatural forward position. The camera often locks on the sharp edges of his shoulder blades and bumps of his spine. His teeth are brown from neglect. Despite apparent deterioration of mind and body, he wins numerous fights and outruns adversaries with ease. We see one or two fleeting glimpses of wit, but the vast majority of the time Freddie seems to suffer from a severe mental handicap rather than PTSD.
Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a Scientology-esque cult, sees Freddie as the endearing embodiment of the animal in us all, and takes him on as a pet. Philip Seymour Hoffman channels the narcissistic Master with ease. The chemistry between Hoffman and Phoenix is extraordinary, and makes the film worth watching. Their relationship in the film vacillates between heartwarming and sadistic. Dodd is the only person in the world with an affinity for Freddie Quell, despite his family’s strong misgivings, and Quell is willing to do (quite literally) anything to please and protect him.
Though the visuals are beautiful and acting is exceptional, the audience is left waiting for it to all come together. While exiting the theater, I heard a young man say, “I’ll need someone a lot smarter than me to explain it later.” But quite honestly, I don’t think the issue was with him. The audience knows that the story is about re-assimilation after war, as told by an unreliable narrator. It is also about our baser instincts and our ability to control them. And lastly, it is about bromance. Despite heading down all of these roads, it never quite reaches a destination – at least not a satisfying one – leaving the audience to wonder, “Did I miss something?”
The director, it seems, was in love with his actors and the post-war era and did not wish to distract with a big plot. If his goal was to compile over 2 hours of beautiful images of some of the most talented actors in existence, then he succeeded. But, if his goal was to make the audience feel something, I hope that feeling was confusion.