Is The Master too long? Some would argue—hell, I would argue—that it probably is. Over two hours and 20 minutes, very little happens. We meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and probably a bucketful of other mental problems, in the first frames of the film. Soon enough, he encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic author and amateur psychologist who's just begun germinating a religion out of his eccentric worldview. The rest of The Master simply tells the story of their interactions.
To be fair, they're fascinating interactions, and director Paul Thomas Anderson's explorations into faith and family are well worth watching. Quell is pathologically horny, not very bright, and seething with rage all the time. Dodd is all blustering self-confidence. He sings songs and expects everyone to join in, he tells stories as though he's bestowing a gift on a dark and yearning world, he welcomes guests grandly to other people's homes, he's generous as long as his generosity doesn't personally cost him a thing. Quell falls under Dodd's sway, but his bottomless anger is always inspiring him to push at the edges of Dodd's patience, like a toddler trying to figure out how far her parents' love can stretch. Clearly, these two men are bound for a bad ending. And lurking around the sides of the frame is Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who wants to have a say in how things turn out. Most of the time, she's staring intently at Quell, but when she rears up and speaks, it's with the ferocity and suddenness of a cold-blooded animal.
The cast of this film, in fact, is practically a menagerie. Or at least, they're begging for zoological comparisons. Phoenix's brilliant performance as Quell is a cross between Richard Nixon's round-backed awkwardness and a sack full of wet, hungry wolverines. He sulks, holds grudges, and sometimes tries to break someone's face against the sidewalk. Hoffman, with his mustache, resembles a particularly self-satisfied walrus, but he acts more leonine, with a predatory eye toward the people who call him Master and a desperate desire to keep his pride safe, fed, and happy so that they don't turn on him. He doesn't have to defend himself often, but when he does, the ferocity renders Quell a teddy bear in comparison. And Adams can poison with her words before you even realize she's broken your skin. The risk with a performance as alive as Phoenix's vibrating turn as Quell—you can't take your eyes off him, because you're afraid he'll gouge your eyes out with his thumbs—is that you're likely to miss the fact that Adams and Hoffman are doing the best work of their careers, too.
But The Master is slow in parts. I don't mean slow like Anderson is taking ample time to establish Quell and Dodd's relationship. I mean slow like Anderson is perhaps getting a little self-indulgent in his middle-aged auteurship. And it must be said that The Master shares a bit too much of There Will Be Blood's DNA, with its troubled relationship between a father figure and a young man desperate to believe in something. The comparisons are multitudinous and too spoiler-laden to share here. And since the shared themes are unmistakable, The Master pales, slightly, in comparison with its older brother—after watching The Master, I wanted nothing so much as to clamber back into the theater and watch There Will Be Blood all over again. I will definitely see The Master again—likely at the Cinerama, where it's screening in 70 mm—but that rewatch is going to have to be in a little while, after I forget how long it takes the characters to get where they're going.