Against the tsunami of praise for The Master, a period piece about the roots of Scientology by Paul Thomas Anderson, allow a minority dissenting voice. This is more a film for critics to bloviate about than for discerning moviegoers to embrace. In fact, it's become virtual heresy to propose that Master suffers from a touch of emperor-without-clothes syndrome.
The film is partly concerned with the career of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), stand- in for L. Ron Hubbard, who famously created a cult blending psychoanalysis, hypnosis, and time travel to cure whatever ails you, from destructive behavior to cancer. Into the circle of this Elmer Gantry-style mountebank comes Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged WWII veteran of the Navy, fresh from the psycho ward and a couple of disastrous work stints. The film proceeds on two tracks, tracing Dodd's growing eminence, but homing in mainly on the dynamic between the charismatic leader and Quell, who becomes an enthralled disciple and shlepper.
Yes, Joaquin Phoenix is nothing short of amazing in his Method-y turn as a man wracked by demons, conveyed down to his skewed posture. The screen has seldom offered such a visceral, physical performance. Phoenix is matched by Hoffman's brio as the power-besotted master; the pair playing off each other is something to behold.
And no shortage of impeccable craft here, from the opening scene of Navy man Quell on the beach humping a goddess built of sand, to close-ups of the two men in "processing" sessions designed to free Freddie from past traumas -- including those from a previous existence -- to a motorcycle sequence shot in the Arizona desert. The exact period detail eerily mirrors even the faces of the '40s and '50s. An exciting, abrasive score by musical wizard Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (also heard in There Will be Blood) plays up the film's emotional turmoil and unbridled ambition.
The problem lies in the overarching conception of Master, which beggars the question, What the hell is this about? There's no deep intelligence behind it. I know, "smart" is not this film's game -- but still... Maybe it's meant to be about one man's drive to control others, embodied in the Dodd-Quell duo. Or a uniquely American mountebank. Or whackos like Freddie Quell who are sitting ducks for megalomaniacs. Who knows? One thing's certain: a fetishized film such as this will do no favors to the dismal 2012 Box Office that has the movie biz freaked.
I found more satisfying two relatively un-buzzed films. Also featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, A Late Quartet is a first feature from American-Israeli Yaron Zilberman that explores the fallout in a famed string quartet when one of its members falls victim to a degenerative disease. Though the screenplay initially feels over-determined, the story-power is cumulative in this exquisite, immersive work about the passion to carry on a musical heritage. At Any Price, toplining Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, marks a striking departure for Rahmin Bahrani (Man Push Cart). The filmmaker sets his riveting drama of fathers and sons in the Iowa agri business, where in order to survive farmers do un-kosher things to genetically altered seeds that can't be good for our health. The ending of Price is an elegantly-handled shocker.
And now for my list of Best, Worst, and Most Notable from TIFF 2012.
Best headline of the fest: From critic Alonso Duralde, "The Master ... Is Just Running on Cruise Control."
Most questionable comment of the fest: Nick Cassavetes on Incest: "Who Gives a Damn? Love Who You Want."
Most memorable sight on King Street street: Pregnant woman in a tight sheath looking like a python that had swallowed a warthog.
Worst moment of the fest: Saturday A.M., a hike from my hotel in torrential downpour, and the six flight escalator at the Scotia Bank theater is broken.
Most pissed off moment: Getting shut out of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and told we should have lined up an hour and l/2 before.
Most outrageous moment: Dude loudly talking on his cell during a press and industry screening.
Oscar-bait turns: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Dennis Quaid in At Any Price.
Most delicious, against-type turn: Nicole Kidman, hilarious as a '70s trash queen in The Paperboy.
Hottest actors: The trifecta of Ryan Gosling, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Mads Mikkelsen.
Swankiest parties that were deprived of my presence because I wasn't invited: Anything at Soho House.
Priciest cab fare: Rush hour ride to the Hazelton Hotel in Yorkville -- and thank you kind cabbie for putting me on to trolleys!
Worst tech glitches: The roaming on my Android that didn't work -- thanks for the memories Verizon! The laptop that froze mid-post.
Biggest regret: All the doggone films I didn't get to see.