Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “The Master,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, opened Friday and immediately garnered an enormous amount of praise, but also met with more than a little bemusement, even frustration, from critics and audiences alike. Both these torrents of praise and trickles of confusion are warranted.
Anderson, who wrote, directed and co-produced the film, is the creative force behind “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and most recently, “There Will Be Blood” and has been nominated for five Academy Awards thus far.
He is the quintessential modern-day auteur, building his films from the ground up and remaining deeply involved in every aspect of their execution and production.
Within filmmaking — a notoriously collaborative medium — his movies reflect his vision in a more singular and profound fashion than do the works of virtually anyone else laboring in the industry. That, of course, can be a good or a bad thing.
“The Master” is emblematic of the soaring heights of the auteur style of filmmaking. Make no mistake — this film would not and could not emerge from a writing team or a studio boardroom brainstorming session.
Anderson claims the idea for “The Master” has been percolating in his mind for 12 years, and the film’s depth and power certainly speak to that lengthy sort of gestation.
The film’s dialogue is at various points beautiful, crude, poignant, whimsical and wrenching, and it’s always profoundly human.
While much has been made of the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman — and rightfully so — their source material was absolute gold. Perhaps never in the history of cinema has a stable of characters been introduced who are all so real, so accessible and so human.
The acting throughout the movie, even accounting for the beauty of the script, was stunning.
Phoenix, in his portrayal of the post-World-War-II drifter Freddie Quells, and Hoffman, with his indescribably nuanced performance of the L. Ron Hubbard-based intellectual charlatan Lancaster Dodd, will both receive loads of praise and probably many, many awards.
They both have already won honors from the Venice International Film Festival, and they more than earned them.
Hoffman, as Dodd, might be the most refined and complete acting performance in film history.
They are unfortunately liable to overshadow the performances of the supporting cast, particularly Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, Peggy, whose acting is as understated as it is riveting.
Virtually every actor in every second onscreen is electric and magnetic and impossible not to watch.
Ultimately, however, the story is perplexing. Anyone looking for a concrete narrative with well-defined good guys and bad guys progressing steadily toward an easily recognizable climax and denouement will be sorely disappointed and possibly resentful.
This is perhaps the inevitable result of the auteur’s work — it need not conform to extant standards of storytelling with their limiting strictures, and this can alienate audiences, who purchase tickets with expectations regarding what a film ought to do.
“The Master,” in its complexity, nonconformity and dizzying depth, simultaneously embodies both the virtuosic peaks and the confusing valleys of the auteur film.