The Master is this year’s Tree of Life, the movie critics rave about in spite of the fact that David Thomson in The New Republic says, “I have the gravest doubts as to whether it is about anything,” Lisa Schwartzbaum calls it “enigmatic,” and Cary Darling in the Eagle describes it as “easy to admire but harder to love.” I beg to be excused from either activity.
At one point, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and a woman go off into a barren desert flat with a car and a motorcycle, and Hoffman orders Phoenix to make a fast run, and Phoenix disappears in the distance and doesn’t come back. Shortly we see Hoffman and the woman, in fading light, walking across the desert in the direction Phoenix disappeared. Asking why they didn’t take the car is as futile as asking why, at some kind of a party, half a dozen women are suddenly stark naked, by no means all attractive enough to be a glimpse into Phoenix’s imagination, and of no apparent relevance to anything else in the movie.
These are by no means the most important mysteries in The Master, which Schwartzbaum suggests might become intelligible on second viewing.
Hoffman’s performance is fascinating and Phoenix is fine scene by scene but neither one has a chance to make a full character out of what seem to be fragments of a plan. Amy Adams has virtually nothing to do. Rumor had it that The Master had something to do with L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but Thomson doesn’t think the Scientologists “will bother to be upset.” The picture most often brought up in comparison is the same writer-director’s There Will Be Blood. I have always suspected that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson sacrificed the totality of that picture in favor of Daniel Day Lewis. I suspect that he has done the same thing with The Master in favor of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.