This is a very ambitious film, but one with its ambition unfulfilled.
Director-writer-producer Paul Thomas Anderson has given us the powerful films There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. He has a habit of swinging for the bleachers and often makes it. This time he came up with a swing and a miss. It is too bad too, because the subject (the psychology of cults and their leaders) might have made a film that rewarded the time investment made by the audience — and the financial investment by the producers for that matter.
The superb acting by the three principal players cannot save this film, but the actors cannot be faulted for the flawed writing. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most versatile actors working today. I have seen him in a half dozen assorted roles and he has been grand in each of them. He plays The Master, the leader of a cult — loosely based on Scientology — with carefully measured skill. The Master is brilliant, a man with multiple advanced degrees. His chief mastery however is in his ability to manipulate those around him.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a half crazed alcoholic Navy vet who stumbles upon The Master in 1950. Drunk at the time, the stumble is literal as well as figurative. This is a courageous role for the troubled Phoenix. After his immense success in Walk the Line Phoenix spiraled down into his own version of half crazed drug overindulgence. We first encounter his character as the war ends and the Navy man celebrates VJ day by siphoning and consuming the methyl alcohol fuel from a torpedo. He exhibits uncontrolled anger and uncontrolled boozing from start to finish.
Amy Adams plays the wife of the cult leader. She completely buys into his program. Others in the cult’s inner circle have doubts about the teaching but not her. She is convinced that her husband has the right wisdom even if others are not so sure. His own son says, “He just makes it up as he goes along, you know.”
The film is much too long at two hours and 17 minutes and would benefit from a close editing.
The major flaw in this two saw blade effort is in the stasis of the characters.
We meet Joaquin Phoenix as a crazed drunk and we leave him in the same sorry state. There is no growth in his character to make him interesting.
The cult leader may be a charlatan. He may be a brilliant seeker of truths that are hidden from the rest of us. He may be a dangerously deranged megalomaniac. We have hints of all three possibilities, but there is no resolution. Without resolution there can be no satisfaction for the audience. And there are several jarring discontinuities that leave the viewers asking, “What just happened?”
This R rated failure cost a modest — by Hollywood measurements — $30 million to make, but has returned a dismal $15 million in eight week in the theaters. We expect much more from a film with such a powerful cast.