[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of this week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master probably came to Toronto with as much Oscar buzz as anything showing here. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in his first film since the 2010 experimental quasi-documentary I'm Still Here, The Master is emphatically a piece of award bait, but deservedly so.
The story concerns Freddie Quell (Phoenix), who exits the Navy at the end of World War II and is instantly lost. Jobs, fights, women, nothing really sticks until he stumbles onto a boat where The Master (Hoffman), a sort of quasi-psychological guru, is commanding his flock, or cult, or following, or whatever it is he has. Freddie is given some free "processing" and learns that this group is called The Cause, and their primary belief is that we all have millions of years of past lives that we can call up from our memories if we concentrate hard enough.
You might expect the film to heavily rely on mocking the believers or showing that The Master, also known as Lancaster Dodd, is a charlatan and The Cause is a sham; it isn't really about that. It's more about the fact that Freddie is attracted to The Cause in such a way that he wouldn't have any idea if it were a sham; it's not even clear that it matters to him whether it is or it isn't. It's a place to be, and he doesn't have one.
Both the lead actors in the film offer vigorous, often rage-filled performances, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them emerge as each other's primary awards competition. There's also a very un-Amy-Adams-like performance from Amy Adams as Dodd's wife, which demonstrates conclusively that she's not the cartoon princess people often assume her to be.
This is, at heart, an engagingly strange movie, one that will bear far more contemplation than the film-festival pace really allows. Anderson remains as evidently fascinated by charismatic pitchmen as he was when he made There Will Be Blood, and there are certainly moments of inspired lunacy. But there's also a sequence in which we remain tight on Freddie's face as he answers a series of yes or no questions, and it's as riveting as any big speech a screenwriter can offer to an actor.
At times, The Master is slow going; it feels cinematically heavy, for lack of a more precise word. Like most of what Anderson does (There Will Be Blood, but also Boogie Nights and Magnolia, among others), it won't be everyone's cup of tea. If you stick with it, though, it's gorgeous to look at and an absolute feast of strong and interesting acting.
The Master opens in the United States on September 21.