"The Master made me feel the greatest relief I've ever experienced at the end of a movie to read that all characters were fictitious."
-Scott Z, anonymous movie patron
Mental illness and the outer limits of alcoholism are recurring themes among this year's Oscar contenders. The Master slams them home with a double whammy that lets you reside for two and ahalf unsettling hours in Crazy Town, with Joaquin Phoenix as your mayor.
At the conclusion of World War II, Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) leaves the Armed Forces, diagnosed with "a nervous condition". He is briefly treated at the VA and released onto the world. Drifting through a series of job disasters—from department store photographer fighting with a patron to field worker killing off a fellow cabbage picker with lethal homemade hooch—the two common threads are alcohol and assault. Then Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), self-described "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher... but above all, a man" and leader of the cult known as "The Cause".
Phoenix is undeniably gifted in his performance—with twitchy, vexatious instability and a constant percolation of violence just below the surface. If Freddie Quell were sitting next to me on the bus, I would get off at the next stop. (Hard to describe how challenging it was to sit with him for an uneasy 144 minutes in the theater.) As for Oscar-nominated Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress), they are certainly competent in their roles—but roles that are less than demanding. It's nice to see Amy Adams a little on the nasty side; but nevertheless, Enchanted offered a meatier character than this one.
The movie is complex and deep, yet ultimately a collage of disjointed pieces with no arc of true character development—concluding with the implication that the characters will continue looping through their dysfunctional refrains.