‘The Master’ benefits from strong performances but suffers from poor script

Alex Williams

By now, Paul Thomas Anderson films are practically cinematic events. Anderson’s work is known for its surgically precise imagery, performances beyond reproach and distinct soundtracks that “The Master” is happy to oblige. What it does lack is a strong script.

Not to say Anderson hasn’t baited a compelling hook for his audience. The story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran set adrift into an affluent postwar America, isn’t quite like anything you’ve seen before. Freddie is helplessly compulsive to the point of being self-destructive and Phoenix plays the character with a perpetual snarl, a force of nature just looking for an excuse. He is a harsh presence in appearance, demeanor and even in the way he delivers dialogue. Every scene has an added edge simply because there is no way to predict what Freddie is going to do.

Early in the film, Freddie stumbles onto a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the enigmatic leader of a movement called “The Cause.” Almost immediately, they inspire a madness in each other. Something in the boy inspires Dodd in a way that his followers cannot. The moments between Freddie and Dodd, small-scale sparring matches, are the best and most illuminating “The Master” has to offer. Much has been made of the similarities between “The Cause” and Scientology, and scenes where Dodd puts Freddie through a few of his “scientific” experiments are absolutely riveting, both for the character work on-screen and their inspiration off-screen.

Hoffman’s performance is largely built around Dodd’s interactions with Freddie. His slow ideological seduction is fascinating to watch simply for how completely Hoffman embodies the character. When Dodd takes to the pulpit, we see a different side of him, almost a different character, and Hoffman demonstrates remarkable charisma as he delivers verbal manure so convincingly that you almost buy into his schtick.

Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s steadfast wife, is sparsely utilized, but when she is, she’s a fiery, supportive partner, seized with legitimate fervor in her husband and the empire he’s building. It’s a beautifully impassioned performance and one of the many elements that could use some filling out.

There’s no denying that “The Master” is packed with compelling ingredients, but the final dish is shapeless and unsatisfying. The best word to describe the film upon first viewing is “chewy,” peppered with moments of undeniable brilliance and dramatic resonance, but so maddeningly oblique that it’s hard to swallow.

Freddie and Dodd are fascinating figures and “The Master” spends a lot of time wallowing in their dynamic, but it ultimately fails to pay off those interactions. The final scene between the two is a dramatic moment crippled by writing that sucks out any energy or feeling despite boasting one of Hoffman’s most beautifully acted moments in the film. Certainly traditional storytelling isn’t a requirement for classic cinema, but there’s a reason dramatic structure dictates a beginning, middle and end, a satisfying conclusion that “The Master” simply lacks.

Even if his script isn’t quite the connective tissue it should be, Anderson is at the top of his game in every other aspect. His images are crafted with a confidence and precision that very few working directors possess, and every frame of “The Master” is a work of art, each element exactly where it should be. The Alamo Drafthouse recently outfitted its downtown location with the ability to show films in 70mm simply so it could play the film how Anderson intended. If you get a chance to see the film in that fashion, absolutely do so. There aren’t many sweeping visual flourishes, and many of its biggest scenes consist of close-ups, but the level of detail that 70mm allows is unprecedented and gorgeous.

The film is a technical marvel to boot. Jonny Greenwood’s score is practically magic: a seductive, emphatic work that adds dramatic weight to even the smallest moment. Even things that usually go unnoticed, like costume and production design, stick out here, and Anderson’s attention to detail deserves commendation. He’s created a real and unique world for his characters here, and that alone is an achievement.

The best films leave you with a sense of elation, a feeling that you’ve seen something truly special, and there are parts of “The Master” that inspire that childlike giddiness. Phoenix and Hoffman’s work, Greenwood’s score and many of the images that Anderson captures are among the best of the year, but when the credits roll, that rush of having connected with a film on a purely emotional level simply isn’t there. Not that “The Master” doesn’t deserve multiple viewings, because I can’t wait to see the film again and hope that many of my issues with it are allayed by a second viewing. Nonetheless, “The Master” is my favorite working filmmaker taking a step back for the first time, and that’s perhaps the biggest disappointment it has to offer.