The Venice Film Festival has always been a highlight of the festival circuit, but this year’s edition seemed to have even more buzz around it, thanks to the debut of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master. The film didn’t take home top honors at the Festival, losing out to Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, but Anderson won the jury award for best director, with stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix sharing the honor for best actor.
The film now heads to the Toronto Film Festival before opening nationwide on September 21st, but early reviews are already pouring in and they’re rather glowing. Below are some excerpts from the most notable.
There’s not enough space here to do more than indicate the wealth of ideas, images, inferences and influences ricocheting around in this complex study of a power-struggle bromance between cod-psychology and instinctive behaviour. But I can say that’s it’s a screen-acting masterclass and probably the most impressive American film I’ve seen since There Will Be Blood.
In a film overflowing with qualities but also brimming with puzzlements, two things stand out: the extraordinary command of cinematic technique, which alone is nearly enough to keep a connoisseur on the edge of his seat the entire time, and the tremendous portrayals by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman of two entirely antithetical men, one an unlettered drifter without a clue, the other an intellectual charlatan who claims to have all the answers. They become greatly important to each other and yet, in the end, have an oddly negligible mutual effect. The magesterial style, eerie mood and forbidding central characters echo Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, a kinship furthered by another bold and discordant score by Jonny Greenwood.
But “The Master” isn’t interested in anything so clear-cut as joy vs. misery. It’s about the way people’s lives intersect, if only briefly and perhaps without a satisfying sense of closure. Anderson, long a master himself of technique and tone, has created a startling, stunningly gorgeous film shot in lushly vibrant 65mm, with powerful performances all around and impeccable production design. But it’s also his most ambitious film yet – quite a feat following the sprawling “Magnolia” and the operatic “There Will Be Blood” – in that it’s more impressionistic and less adherent to a tidy three-act structure.
Hoffman can lift his resonant voice to command attention or lower it to a velvet whisper, both equally mesmerizing. But it’s what the guru tries to conceal – his secret smile, his sudden wrath, the connection he feels with Freddie’s feral heart – that make his portrayal monumental. Hoffman excelled in four of Anderson’s previous films, but his tour de force here as a do-gooder-turned-silky-charlatan tops them all.
Phoenix completes this out-of-the-box love story by embodying Freddie as a raw, exposed nerve. The son of an institutionalized mother, Freddie forms a relationship with Dodd that seesaws from devotion to rabid doubt. He has the same reactions to the much younger girl (Madisen Beaty) he left behind. Then there are Freddie’s twisted sexual fantasies, notably Dodd dancing among naked female disciples. Freddie freaks out when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) casually mentions that Dad is “making all this up as he goes along.” His animal-like breakdown in a jail cell makes Robert De Niro’s raging bull seem mildly miffed. Phoenix wears the role like a second skin; he’s a volcano in full eruption. You can’t take your eyes off him.
Anderson’s scripts have long delighted in the possibilities of language, particularly in period settings, and for long stretches, the scribe seems at once intoxicated and repulsed by the florid, fanciful, seductively high-minded diction Dodd uses to win and manipulate his converts. Hoffman, in his fifth collaboration with the director, simply mesmerizes here, his speech balancing the mellifluous with the ridiculous, his smiling eyes full of wonder and possibility even as his will and words maintain a grip of unyielding authority. Monstrous and monomaniacal though Dodd may be, he’s a character to love.