Movie review: The Master

By Columbus Alive
From the September 20, 2012 edition

The nature of the movie critic gig is that I get to see a bunch of movies, usually before the general public. Sometimes I take that for granted. Not this week. This week, I saw “The Master.”

“The Master” isn’t just a movie, you see. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

Anderson and Quentin Tarantino are the two American filmmakers whose movies will always be events for me. This was no exception.

As a director, Anderson paints in bold strokes — he followed up the success of “Boogie Nights” with the sprawling “Magnolia” and directed an Oscar-worthy performance by Adam Sandler (of all people) in “Punch Drunk Love.”

And while Anderson’s knack for not repeating himself — I’d compare him favorably to Stanley Kubrick in that regard — “The Master” is closest among his catalog to his last work, the searing period drama “There Will Be Blood.”

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a troubled World War II naval veteran turned drifter. Freddie’s path crosses Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic author who is in the early stages of creating his own religion.

Certain parallels with the Dodd character and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard have given this movie an unfair reputation as a Scientology expose. Train your expectations away from that.

I, for one, was not prepared for such a gut-punch of a performance from Phoenix. His Freddie is perpetually drunk and deeply troubled. His unpredictability is positively feral, and the performance has the same wildness and danger that Daniel Day Lewis displayed in “There Will Be Blood.”

Hoffman is more restrained in comparison, but the performances complement one another in an astounding way. Anderson is an actor’s director, and this is some of the finest alchemy he’s whipped up.

It’s a challenging film — not exactly a crowd-pleaser and obtusely plotted — but it’s another masterful one from the most exciting director working today.