Up for three Academy Awards on Sunday, all for its main performances, the inspired-by-Scientology-but-not-really drama follows Navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line) as he returns home post-WWII to find he never really had a home to begin with. He doesn’t “fit” anywhere; his string of tenuous relationships — with women, with jobs and, if his alcoholism gets a vote, with himself — leaves him feeling more lost than ever before, but either too proud to admit it or too blind to see it.
While stowing away on a ship, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moneyball), a self-described “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher.” For the purposes of this review, however, we’ll call him a cult leader, and Freddie is just tortured enough to fall under his spell.
The Master is many things at once: a think piece, a visual marvel, an only-in-America tale. I just wish Anderson weren’t so purposely enigmatic. His best work — to this day, as the day I saw them, I consider that to be 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia — is that because they stand atop such forthright scripts.
His most recent film before The Master, 2007’s There Will Be Blood hinted at a move toward the arcane with beguiling touches that seemed to consider the performances as the foundation of the storytelling, rather than an end result. While I may not be 100 percent onboard with that creative choice, it’s not my choice to make, and the movies remain so damned interesting to watch.
Here, the main reason is Phoenix. True to his name, he rises from the pissed-upon ashes of his self-indulgent mockumentary, 2010’s I’m Still Here, so pointlessly off-putting, it threatened to kill his career, and just about did. He’s a revelation as Quell, a man who snarls with a half-upturned lip, who grimaces through unbearable pain — the hat trick of physical, mental and emotional — until his short fuse reaches the powder keg, to create a character I’d argue is far more a laudable feat than Daniel Day-Lewis’ admittedly stellar turn as Abe Lincoln.
If the Academy Awards recognized the best performance, it would be Phoenix’s name called to the stage. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to imagine. —Rod Lott