I take no pleasure in saying this, but The Master just isn’t very good.
It’s currently being feted by critics as one of 2012’s finest movies, shooting to the top of various Best Film of the Year lists (including that of The Guardian), and it’s not hard to see why: it tackles weighty, dramatic themes in its story of a drifter being recruited in to a cult-ish movement led by a charismatic phony; the post-war American setting allows for an examination of that country’s values at a time when it is steeped in nostalgia; the two lead performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are given plenty of room to breathe and add layers to the narrative; and of course there is the much-trumpeted fact that it was shot on 70mm film, the first full-length US production to do so in more than 15 years.
But all of that sturdy worthiness can’t disguise the fact that The Master is a chore to watch. Its 2 hours 24 minute running time feels at least double that. The story starts slowly, building a little intrigue as we watch Freddie Quell (Phoenix) flit from job to job and town to town, and gets a mite more interesting when Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) turns up on a ship with the rest of his movement and (in the film’s best scene) interrogates Quell before admitting him to the family. And then the film flatlines.
A battle of wills emerges between the two men, with neither one able or willing to change. Nothing interesting happens. They shout a bit, they party a bit, Quell gets restless, Dodd gets arrested. But nothing happens that draws you in. The story doesn’t evolve. It just goes on and on.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has been compared to Stanley Kubrick in some quarters, given his undeniably intellectual approach to cinema. But what worked in There Will Be Blood and Magnolia fails to work here. The only aspect of The Master that recalls Kubrick is its cold, distant approach to the characters. Oh, and its obsession with sex – in particular the nude scene, which was laughably pretentious and merely drew attention to itself.
As for the 70mm footage, it felt entirely wasted. If Anderson wanted to make a film visually dominated by personalities and faces, then fine. But did he need to use such expensive materials to do so? It wasn’t even proper widescreen. Imagine what David Lean could have done with all that film.
It is entirely possible that The Master will reveal greater depths upon subsequent viewings, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the desire to try and get through it again. It was a big disappointment in a year that has otherwise offered plenty of very good, though not great, films. If it ends up scooping the big prizes in the imminent awards season, I’ll be even more disappointed.