Film Capsule: The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is kind of like the Daniel Day-Lewis of directors: So brilliant, yet so stunningly infrequent. Perhaps this is the mark of genius. Perhaps it is the cost of laboring outside the Hollywood mainstream. Either way, this much is clear: Both Anderson and Lewis very rarely miss the mark when it comes to applying their trade.

All of which brings us to The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, co-anchored by big-screen heavyweights Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is the role transcendent, so completely immersed in the skin of Freddie Quell that you very often feel as if you’re trapped deep down inside that reckless monster alongside him.

Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, on the other hand, somehow manages to bulldoze right over Freddie Quell, time and time and time again … which is – of course – exactly how the thing was designed. There are entire scenes in this film where the audience feels as if it’s being treated to a master class in on-screen method and timing. On that score, The Master is an astounding piece of cinema, superbly paced and played from the first frame to the last.

The ongoing problem, however, is that The Master tends to drag … veering off into what equates to a running joke about putting a blind fool in a round room and forcing him to find the corner. Round and round the screenplay goes, Freddie Quell forever rushing to keep up, while the master keeps him guessing from the center.

In the end, it’s the extremely high level of acting and directing that keeps the lagging screenplay from toiling in obscurity. And yet, that venerable combination alone is more than worth the price of admission. So I say, “Why not see The Master … for that combination, and that combination alone?”

All the rest is clouds and darkness, and clouds and darkness ain’t no fun.

(The Master opens in limited release today, with a national rollout to follow.)