This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an extraordinarily intelligent, compelling, and well-made film. It’s also frustrating; Anderson doesn’t build it to any kind of conspicuous epiphany or dramatic climax. Joaquin Phoenix plays a U. S. Navy veteran who can’t adjust to civilian life after World War II. Suffering from alcoholism and mental illness, he becomes a drifter until he meets the charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a cult-like self-help movement. The leader sees something in the drifter that no one else does, and he takes the drifter in. The relationship between the two is complex and shifting. The drifter begins as a fervent devotee of the leader who has no real interest in the tenets of the movement. But when faced with expulsion, he embraces the movement’s ideas, and to a certain degree, eventually slips out from under the leader’s spell. One expects a climactic showdown between the two men, but it never really comes; they just fall away from each other. There’s a quiet tension in the scene in which the two have their final break, but it’s so understated the drama more or less floats off. But the push-pull, semi-father-son dynamic until then is gripping to watch, and Phoenix and Hoffman give spellbinding performances. Phoenix alternates between ferocity and pathos, and in his best moments, he evokes both at once. Hoffman never has one doubting what a narcissistic charlatan the leader is, but he also effortlessly conveys the assured, affable calm that gives the character his charisma. Amy Adams, who plays the leader’s wife, is the standout among the supporting cast; there’s a still, no-nonsense air about her that gives one the willies. Anderson’s directing is strikingly rigorous; there’s not a flabby moment to be found in the staging, camerawork, or editing. He also gets first-rate work from cinematographer Mihai Malăimare, Jr. and production designers David Crank and Jack Fisk. The carefully wrought color design makes the film absolutely gorgeous to look at. Jonny Greenwood’s musical score, with its rich use of discord, is outstanding as well. The film may not come to a satisfactory conclusion, but it is so effective and accomplished that one cannot be blamed for thinking that doesn’t much matter.