The Master (2012) Review
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Exact rating: 5.5
First a technical comment. I saw this projected in 70mm and although this is a gorgeous format, the sharp definition is often squandered by the shallow depth of field-- out of focus 70mm is not very different from out of focus 35mm. Still, it looks great, but often just felt like 35mm, despite the effort and cost of shooting 70mm.
The core problems of this piece are problems of most Paul Thomas Anderson work. It works sometimes as allegory and cinematic diorama, but infrequently as drama. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is neither beguiling nor charismatic, the way this role requires. (Compare the various Hoffman speeches to any scene with John Hawkes in the far, far, far superior cult picture, Martha Marcy May Marlene.) From the beginning, we see Hoffman as quick to anger and a cold manipulator and there is no element of seduction in terms of bringing Joaquin Phoenix, and the audience, into the cult. Joaquin is neither charismatic nor very interesting, unless you find a mediocre love interest and drinking interesting.
Both actors overdo it and get quite theatrical, though nothing like the abhorrent mugging and apoplectic histrionics of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Maximum acting and method actor anger (the jail scene and singing bits are quite forced). I can engage in a movie with unlikable characters that are interesting, but these characters are neither and the actors do not bring enough personality to the roles to overcome the limitations of the script. Their relationship does not really work, and it's supposed to be a pillar of the movie--- see the failed melodrama at the end.
Like the excellent opening sequences of There Will Be Blood and the Tom Cruise stuff in Magnolia, The Master has about 20+ minutes of material that is truly noteworthy--- the processing sequences. The drama and intensity of these scenes crackle vibrantly in comparison to the other sort of engaging two hours, which plays out like a vague biopic sans pathos. With the exception of the processing scenes and the overwrought acting, the overall piece is mild and less interesting than its subject.