After seeing the trailer weeks ago, featuring one of my favourite actors, Joaquin Phoenix, and a spiel about a director-genius, Paul Thomas Anderson, known for iconic classics such as Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, there truly was a lot of expectation riding on this picture.
The scene is set post WW2 and instanly the audience is captured: how will Naval veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) resume life as a civilian after all he has experienced? Anderson introduces the possibility of a fascinating exploration into veterans’ post traumatic stress syndrome, and creates a familiar world into which Phoenix falls and feels alien. Something, however, is lacking.
The first few scenes of the film depict other men like Freddie, all clearly fundamentally altered by their experiences at war, and all told what an amazing opportunity they now have to start a new life. Against this faux-aspirational backdrop, we see the flaw in Freddie, presumably thanks to the war: alcoholism. This introduction promises an intelligent analysis of post-war life as yet largely ignored by society; yet this important part of the story is ignored in favour of a tale of personality cult.
Admittedly at times it is wonderful to be surprised by the trajectory of a film, even if it varies wildly from what was expected by the trailer – but in this case I felt cheated. Anderson has produced a piece of cinema that never really gets going and know what point it wants to make. ‘The Master’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we discover, is the head of an extremist group with outlandish theories about the self. Anderson throws Freddie into the world of the extremists, yet little results from the endless montage of pointless mind games.
Just when the audience begins to feel that Anderson is indeed making a statement about those vulnerable to the lures of cult sects, the scene will become aimless as the mind games Freddie is subjected to are dragged into absurdity. This grows increasingly frustrating as the film drags slowly on, and was something that really disappointed me, being a huge psychology fan.
The supporting cast added very little to the plot, with Amy Adams’ Peggy Lancaster completely bereft of personality or character motivation. The cult followers were all realistically gullible and in awe of their leader, yet Adams seemed to harbor a violent hatred towards Freddie for no tangible reason – the supposed depth to her character just did not ring true. Seymour Hoffman was charismatic enough, but Phoenic seemed to draw too heavily on his iconic role as Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line.
What promised to be an awe-inspiring exploration of post-war mentality actually turned out to be a drawn out and – dare I say – boring and forgettable picture.