What little story there is follows drifter and drunk Freddie (Phoenix) on being discharged from the Navy following World War Two. He meets the leader of a sort of religious cult – Lancaster Dodd – The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The two very eccentric men’s friendship then forms the basis of the rest of the film.
Not a lot really happens. The movie is more like a portrait that you might find in an art gallery rather than a conventional narrative driven film. It is all about character. But our own interpretation of those characters, because very is little given away.
While Freddie’s character does gets some back story, his fragile mental state which includes alcoholism, violence and an inability to have an emotional relationship, is never explained.
We learn even less about The Master. What exactly his cult is about and what he is trying to achieve and why are not explained.
Both men’s motivations seem irrelevant to Director Paul Thomas Anderson who seems merely intent on painting their pictures so we can see their external personas but only wonder at what is going on inside.
That the film works on this level is due to the incredible affability of the two characters. Despite their many flaws they are extremely likeable. And interesting.
These are two wildly different people. One a loser, one successful. Freddie appears to be like a Jack Kerouac character drifting drunk and aimlessly across 1950s America. While The Master is like an intelligent, funny and charming head of a family who makes family gatherings so enjoyable and who everybody wants to be around.
There are hints at themes in the movie, including people’s attempts to find their way following the war, longing for a family to be part of, father and son relationships, power over others and confronting alternatives. But they are only hints.
This is an abstract work. But one filled with great photography, including some great tracking shots, especially in a harbour near the start, a well used 1950s jazz score and of course the acting.
Hoffman is as ever excellent and at his best. But Phoenix is unrecognisable and unbelievably good, physically displaying in his performance, awkwardness, charm, intelligence, humour, mental scars and unpredictability. It is not often that a performance stands out so much that you think it must be a clear cut Oscar winner. But this one does (the character’s dubious morals perhaps being the only bar to this being an actuality).
The scenes the two leads share are mesmerising. Although like Director Anderson’s previous work There Will be Blood, the film feels somewhat unbalanced with the cast of supporting characters completely over powered by the leads.
And while the acting, cinematography, and sheer enigmatic oddness of the two lead characters sustains the first half, two and half hours is perhaps too long to stay engaged in a movie which ultimately leaves you grasping for meaning. None the less, a brave, unconventional and impressive film.