Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master arrived in theaters with enough Oscar buzz to rock Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier.
Audiences mostly rejected the filmmaker’s inscrutable story of a lost soul and the Scientology-style mentor who tries to make him whole. Oscar voters did the same Sunday night, althoughThe Master’s Philip Seymour Hoffman deserved to take home his second gold statuette.
The film, available this week on Blu-ray and DVD, works better on the small screen despite its lush visual presentation. The expectations are hushed, the performances more intimate, but Anderson’s third act still prevents us from thoroughly embracing his mercurial vision of postwar America.
Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran with an appetite for homemade booze and women. He’s a wreck, but he’s thrown a life preserver when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) aboard a yacht.
Dodd, known to his followers as The Master, is the man responsible for a Scientology-like movement called The Cause. Dodd takes Freddie in, presumably as a guinea pig for the healing powers of his “process,” but Freddie’s hunger for trouble isn’t easily slaked.
Hoffman is so very good as the film’s Master you wish Anderson shed more light on him and his ultimate goals. Is he a genius, a fool, a scoundrel or a sham? The writer/director’s slippery approach can still work if the film tugged at our emotions or simply made us care about the curious Master/Freddie bond.
We don’t, and that’s the biggest reason why Oscar voters simply couldn’t honor the film as many expected they would.
Phoenix is mesmerizing in both repose and in frequent bouts of rage, but his performance feels like muscle memory, not that of an actor withdrawing into a role. Far better is Amy Adams as Dodd’s loyal wife, a woman willing to stand by her man and kick Freddie aside if that will help The Cause.
The Blu-ray extras fuse the traditional (a nicely packaged combination of outtakes and additional scenes) with the downright puzzling (an hour documentary on WWII veterans from filmmaking legend John Huston which purportedly inspired the creation of Freddie Quell). We’re also treated to a, “so raw it’s ridiculous” behind-the-scenes segment which ends on a humorous note. We watch Hoffman, Adams and several others in the cast dissolve into laughter while jammed in an elevator.