THE MASTER (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson): 8/10
Like PTA’s best films, BOOGIE NIGHTS and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, this intense, epic drama is a period piece making the most of its unique ties to American history. But like his weakest efforts (e.g. MAGNOLIA, which mixes moments of brilliance with oversized ambition and misplaced histrionics) it greets its characters’ most vulnerable moments of human emotion with a chilly, detached vision that seems to be merely pretending to understand the warmth of humanity. The film is difficult, opaque, and perhaps needs a second viewing to solve, but like Phil Hoffman says in one scene, “Hmm… food for thought.”
And what delicious food it is. Anderson has never lacked confidence behind the camera, and THE MASTER is every bit its predecessors’ equal in terms of mise-en-scene. I could watch his direction all day long, even when the narrative pace is lugubrious and the material so abstract. And a facet of his direction that could potentially be underrated is his control of actors — have Wahlberg or Reynolds ever given performances better than the ones in BOOGIE NIGHTS? Has Day-Lewis, as tremendous as he’s been in everything from IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER to GANGS OF NEW YORK, ever commanded the screen like he did in BLOOD? And in a career full of show-stopping work (including a couple towering turns in previous PTA films), Hoffman somehow manages to rise even higher as Lancaster Dodd. In close-up, his eyes hypnotize you with a gaze of calm, controlling force, and in hushed tones his speech cadence is as powerful as his bellowing rants. It’s hard to imagine any performance in 2012 that will be better — except for one, and that’s Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Phoenix is a miracle here: using both animal physicality and trembling dialogue to convey a wide range of soul-suffering, and I never once caught him “Acting.” This is a clinic.
But for some reason, as spellbound as I was by the performances, as well as PTA’s jaw-dropping compositions, watching THE MASTER at times felt more like labor than anything else. Having discarded regular DP Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, both of whom lended a grace and rhythm to PTA films with their lighting and cutting, Anderson has given us a rougher experience — Malaimare’s photography is evocative, but contrasty and almost creepy at times; and Leslie Jones’s dissonant cutting rhythms are almost as elliptical as a Malick film (and no wonder: Jones was an editor on THE THIN RED LINE). Surely this denser and heavier viewing experience was intended, but I still feel a bit beaten up by PTA, like one of the many characters in his films who find themselves slapped, punched, and rubbed in the dirt (the college kid outside the limo & Dirk outside the pickup in BOOGIE NIGHTS, Eli in the oil puddle & the bowling alley in TWBB, Kevin J. O’Connor by the sidewalk bench in THE MASTER). PTA has a hell of a way to get his point across: if you can live without a Master, you’ll be the first person in the world to do it.