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Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: The Master

Our review from last night's screening

By Joshua Rothkopf

Toronto is a place of first impressions. Invariably, as the offerings of this generous film festival wash over you (critics choose from hundreds of titles), there's a feeling of pleasurable drowning. You grab on to what you can. Paul Thomas Anderson’s ominous The Master, which had its official world premiere at Venice and last night here after several sneaks, is exactly the wrong kind of film to see in this environment. Ponderously deliberate and demanding, it slows into a rattlesnake-swallowing-a-mouse pace, one that makes There Will Be Blood feel like the giddy Boogie Nights. The mouse is one Freddie Quell, an aberrant WWII sailor transitioning from his stint in the Pacific theater to a stateside life pocked by department-store fistfights and escapes. As played by Joaquin Phoenix (out of the beard but definitely not the wilderness), he's a pinched, habitually drunk mumbler, cryptic in manner but, you suspect, a vessel waiting to be filled.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

And the rattlesnake? Well, we all know who he is and Anderson's done little to hide the identity of the future founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Lancaster Dodd (a richly Wellesian Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a sci-fi writer and guru, a commander of attention on sea and land. In the movie’s expertly rendered 1950 (shellacked yet unglamorous), Dodd is quicker than most to the prophetic idea of counterfactual lie-casting. His default mode is a knowing serenity, but with thinner skin than you might think: One challenger gets dressed down as “pig fuck,” and even the lovable Laura Dern, as a starry-eyed disciple (a cousin to her needy character on Enlightened, withers at his short temper.

Freddie sneaks onto Dodd’s party boat, shimmering like an island of comfort, and is almost immediately flattered by its captain in a conspiratorial embrace. Similarly, The Master teases us with its game of spot the craziness, as scenes of intense questioning (similar to “auditing”) and Dodd’s notions about imprinted souls coalesce into a filmlong wink. But is that enough? It's hard to see what Anderson is illuminating—in luxurious-looking 70mm, no less—about a cult that here sometimes feels more like an extended family with occasional episodes of group nudity. The movie is surprisingly bereft of ramifications, a dramatic shortcoming that seems unusual for Anderson. Up to now, the director has built an ace catalog unified in its critique of the uniquely American (even Californian) penchant for shapeshifting. You expect a tale of Scientology to fit right in, but the script never gets around to Hubbard’s Hollywood and notorious days of black magick. It's a missed opportunity.

And still, even in this short amount of time from last night, the film has grown in my mind. The spell could be attributable to an arrestingly dissonant orchestral score--full of plucked strings and bruised swells--by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Maybe it’s the Oscar-scaled performances, especially from Phoenix, who smashes a prison-cell toilet with the fury of an actor who knows he’s playing to an audience. Everything about The Master is more suggestive than I fear it deserves to be. (The riveting 2011 New Yorker memoir by director Paul Haggis, an ex-Scientologist, would have made for a better film.)

Better to divorce the movie entirely from its hot-topic context and view it as another one of Anderson's father-son stories. There's the old man doting on his “scoundrel,” desiring to become an animal himself; the younger acolyte, in turn, stiffens with new responsibility but gives up a fair degree of his freedom. (That’s basically the same setup as Boogie Nights, but there’s no payoff this time; it seems like the two just drift apart.) The two leading men excel in their quieter scenes, yet there's also a dangerous amount of padding here: churning shots of a boat’s wake, benevolent gazes that might be hiding evil intent, little in the way of plot advancement. I'd trade much of The Master for one extraordinary moment played by the ever-improving Amy Adams, in front of the bathroom mirror with Hoffman. Her hand reaches down below the frame, she vigorously makes demands in his ear and her husband keels over, sexually spent. It's a beautiful metaphor for the power dynamic of follower and followed—but I'd rather not apply it to writer-director and viewer.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf

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