True story (w/SPOILER ALERT): Me and my sister went to see this in theaters. How I convinced her to watch a movie essentially about the history of Scientology is anyone’s guess. But we were watching the movie and enjoying ourselves, me probably more so to be honest, and then one of the final scenes happen in the film. In it we have Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character start to sing ‘(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China’. It’s an unnerving moment because while the film has these otherworldly elements it never got too surreal. But having this dude serenade to Joaquin Phoenix was just too much for this one dude behind us because in the middle of this he just screams: “This is Insane!” Both of us totally lost it and to this day it has become one of our favorite moments in a theater.
I am a Academy apologist and would like to think most of the time they get it right come Oscar time. But man oh man did The Master get shafted, and hard, come award season. Mostly because a film that has any relation to Scientology is gonna be too hard to swallow for Hollywood. But also, because Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t keep his mouth shut about hating the Academy he had no chance of winning what could have been an easily deserved Best Actor award. Let’s get all of the behind the scene baggage out of the way (Cause I don’t feel like ragging on Scientology or go into detail why Paul Thomas Anderson is a modern master of cinema. More on him later down the road.) So let’s talk about why I love this film: the acting.
Speaking of modern masters, we lost a god damn treasure when Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away a few years ago. He always gave in a great performance no matter the film but his true gem of a performance is in this film. He plays this very complicated figure who is one part charismatic and all parts messed up. Hoffman can change personalities at the drop of a dime. One minute he can give this eloquent speech to a group at a party and the next he is calling someone a ‘pig fuck’ for being a naysayer on his religious beliefs. It’s terrifying because you never really know what is going through this man’s head and just like a certain leader of a certain religion he has a backstory that is totally unbelievable. It makes you realize though that Amy Adam’s role as the wife is pulling all the strings because she is much more in control of this group than Hoffman. Her role is a bit muggy in this film because other than having scenes where she shows her dominance in the relationship she doesn’t add much to the overall plot. But goddamn if she doesn’t deliver in every scene and give some of the chillest stares in cinema history.
The biggest enigma in all of this is Joaquin Phoenix. His character is hard to pat down because, like Hoffman’s, there is so much complexity to the role In one aspect he is clearly suffering from PTSD which is a subtle theme to this whole film. We tend to think of Vietnam or current wars where PTSD was an issue; but you better believe our greatest generation saw some truly terrible and haunting shit while fighting in WWII. But in a key flashback late in the film it is clear something was wrong with his character mentally to begin with. So is Phoenix doing layers where he is also a bit mentally unstable? Or is he just spiraling down the hill with some of the worst alcohol addiction I’ve ever seen? (1940s or not I doubt drinking fuel from a torpedo is ever a good idea). Sometimes the film does feel a bit loose in how it connects with a lot of scenes but it honestly keeps this otherworldly feel to it whether intentional of not.
Two scenes though stand out for me though in why the Academy screwed up with their decisions come Oscars of 2012. The first involves a scene in a jail between the two:
Phoenix does a ton of physical acting in this film but this is practically the height of it. There is so much pent-up rage that he can easily destroy a toilet is impressive. But what I love is how Hoffman just stays cool under pressure and never blinks an eye during this whole sequence. When Hoffman tries to go onto a spiel about his religion Phoenix calls out in his bullshit and, like I mentioned earlier, he immediately switches into his own rage mode and both characters ‘true’ selves comes out.
If there is a poll for what could be defined as one of the best scenes in cinema I would rank this one way up the top. (Or in the very least for this recent decade.) It tells us so much about Phoenix’s character credit should go to Paul Thomas Anderson for condensing an entire character’s history in a single take. Pheonix goes from cocky asshole to broken down, shell of a man so quickly it takes a couple viewings to see the transition. The fact that Hoffman almost immediately opens up with how Pheonix had sex with a family member speaks volumes to the kind of mental abuse his religion is willing to go. Seriously, an entire book could probably be broken down on what makes this such a perfect moment in cinema.
When I say people in this film got shafted from Oscars I totally mean that. This did get three acting nominations which were, obviously, deserved. But there was no chance for this to be Best Director, Best Writing, Best Score (BIGGEST crime ever considering Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score), and Best Picture. The Master deserved some kind of award though even if it was for pity sakes. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix didn’t have a chance because this was the year Daniel Day-Lewis was the juggernaut with Lincoln. But you are telling me Christoph Waltz was better than Philip Seymour Hoffman that year? Incorrect. (And I LOVE Waltz from Django Unchained. But that was just doing more of the same from Inglorious Basterds.) The Master will probably be one of the biggest ‘What ifs’ in Academy history for me. Could this have done so much better at any other time? We’ll probably never know. But what I do know is this: The Master is a gem and you will see most likely decades from now a resurgence for the love of this.