A Venice Film Festival audience lined up starting at about 8 AM today to catch the first press screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. The packed house was hushed throughout the entirety of the film with only a handful of walkouts. Although immediate reaction following the screening was enormously positive, applause when the credits rolled was muted. After sitting through 2 hours of a gorgeous yet emotionally grueling and difficult-to-decipher picture, folks say they’re still parsing the movie. As one industryite and self-professed fan of Anderson’s work said to me this morning, “I would have preferred if it moved from Point A to Point B, not because I’m illiterate about film or need signposts along the way, but it seems to keep circling around.” An across-the-board consensus, however, is that Joaquin Phoenix should earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination. His portrayal of a disturbed World War II veteran Navy man is disturbing itself for the masterful way he embodies such an enigmatic character.
The Weinstein Company releases The Master on September 14th in the U.S., and sneak screenings around the country have resulted in largely glowing reviews. Curiously, a scene that was part of one of the original trailers for The Master — in which Phoenix’s Freddie Quell screams at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, aka The Master: “I know you’re trying to calm me down, but just say something that’s true!” — was not in the version screened in Venice this morning. Nor was a scene in which Quell is being questioned about “an incident.”
Anderson is known for operatic tales, whether set against the backdrop of the porn industry, the San Fernando Valley during a frog storm, or the Southern California oil boom. But this one will be a tougher sell to audiences not used to the director’s work. The movie has been regarded as a thinly-veiled treatise on Scientology, and someone who’s not heard all of the Scientology talk before seeing the film would immediately recognize references to it.
The film focuses largely on Phoenix’s shell-shocked, alcoholic and violence prone character – though one suspects he was shell-shocked long before the war. He stumbles across Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, aka The Master, the affable if ominous leader of “The Cause,” who takes Quell under his wing and begins to “process” him. One person this morning told me Hoffman’s Dodd resembles a snake-oil salesman more than L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Phoeniz and Hoffman engage in a pas-de-deux throughout the lush film almost erasing every other player – save Amy Adams who is compelling when on screen.