Combustible Celluloid
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With: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Amy Ferguson, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Patty McCormack
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Running Time: 137
Date: 09/01/2012

The Master (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Used to be Friends

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature The Master is very good, and certainly such an intelligent, ambitious film is cause for celebration, but it may not be quite the masterpiece that the buzz has been suggesting.

To begin, it's difficult to tell what the movie, set in the early 1950s, is really about.

Some have hinted that it's about the origins of the Church of Scientology. Indeed, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a captivating performance as the so-called "master," Lancaster Dodd, who tells his followers that life's problems can be solved through examining past lives.

But the movie actually focuses on a misfit called Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), with a war-related stress disorder and a violent streak.

Phoenix gives a positively demented performance, freakishly skinny, and carrying himself with a strange twist. Half of his face is squished shut, like Popeye's; it's the essence of cartoonish.

Dodd befriends the down-and-out Freddie when they bond over some of Freddie's bizarre homemade liquor, though what keeps them friends is a mystery.

Dodd's wife (Amy Adams), family, and followers don't quite know what to make of Freddie either.

Likewise, it's hard to know if Freddie believes the master's spiel, or indeed, if even Dodd himself believes it. Naysayers sometimes appear to offer rebuttal -- and Freddie beats them up.

Regardless of what the film is actually about, the best part is that it seems to be about something. Anderson not only knows how to make a film that looks great, but also he knows how to make a film that feels like it ought to be great.

The movie's slowness, the awesome use of space and movement and color, and the haunting continuity of the Jonny Greenwood score, all indicate greatness. Even Hoffman's performance indicates greatness, as did that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

However, looking back to Anderson's films Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love reveals a less self-consciously intellectual, more powerfully emotional side.

Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise, and Adam Sandler were showcased at their best, stripped down to their essences. In The Master, the actors are stuck behind thick facades, and if themes like friendship or laughter are supposed to resonate here, they do not.

But if the movie is about something smaller, something hidden beneath its majestic tapestry -- like the search for answers that can never be learned, and the discovery of the small things that can -- then The Master is a fascinating puzzle yet to be solved.

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