Paul Thomas Anderson’s followup to There Will Be Blood, The Master, was recently bumped up to a September start date for its awards-contending theatrical run. However, Santa Monica residents who attended last Friday’s screening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining were treated to an even earlier look at Anderson’s latest (which was the surprise second half of a double-feature).

The Master takes inspiration from the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but appears to use those biographical elements as a stepping stone for a powerful tale that’s rich in symbolism and looks/sounds like a companion piece to There Will Be BloodTrailers for The Master tease arresting performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (also Amy Adams, to a lesser degree) – but do early reactions and reviews back that assessment?

Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes so far, with Phoenix singled out as delivering his career-best work in Anderson’s film. Most of the reactions come from everyday cinephiles, rather than professional critics and/or bloggers. Then again, that’s the section of the fan community most likely to actually see The Master in theaters, so their assessments are certainly worth noting.

[SIDENOTE: The following reactions are SPOILER-FREE.]

Here’s a reaction from one such fellow (by the name Victor Escobar):

“Don’t want to say more than a few words about it but it is an all around excellent film. I’ve yet to see one bad PSH performance but this one may be his best. 2hrs 10 min. Will get nods for Picture. Good chance of winning original screenplay and acting awards. If it were me, I’d put them both in the Best Actor category but if one them is getting the supporting nod, its Hoffman. It will have its fair share of detractors and its not a “safe” choice. If you guys can, see The Master in 70 mm. Looked gorgeous and its the way P.T Anderson wants you to see it. “

Hollywood Elsewhere has posted the following critique (from another well-spoken movie geek):

“I’m still digesting everything I saw, but it was pretty amazing. It was like a strange fever dream. [But] not audience friendly AT ALL. An ambiguous ending and not one likable character. And without any ‘milkshake’ lines, it probably won’t have the breakthrough that There Will Be Blood had… There are three or four scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman that are barn burners. It also containts the best work Amy Adams has ever done… Phoenix WILL win Best Actor unless Daniel Day Lewis blows us away with [his] Lincoln performance. This is Raging Bull territory for him. Believe it or not, his performance is stranger than that fake doc he made. The only way I can describe him is ‘animalistic.’ (I think the Master title refers to more of a dog and his master. At least that was the vibe I got).. The style feels like Terrence Malick by way of There Will Be Blood.”

Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master'

Here’s a reaction that’s closest to a full-blown review, from Hit Fix‘s source at the Master screening:

“I’ll get the (semi) negatives out of the way first. Because everyone will do this, and because it is merited, I will knock out the ‘There Will Be Blood’ comparisons. Stylistically and tonally they are of a piece. And that, in my eyes, is both a positive and a negative. Positive because I think he has honed in on style that can connote themes and display a character’s psyche in the best and most compelling way. Negative because it was such a fresh and overwhelming sucker punch of a feeling when seeing it in ‘Blood,’ and that might be a little diluted here. And that is only a thing I bring up because I feel like people might think that, and it is a little unfair.  Also, “Blood” had such a strong narrative through-line because of the intensely-focused main character, and The Master tends to meander. It has a strong sense of theme and is always compelling, but it does seem a little aimless in sections. BUT–and I tend not to say this too much–I think that has much more to do with the plight of the character, who is very much aimless in this film.

“That out of the way, all of the things you might be excited about live up to expectations AND MORE. It is never less than visually stunning. The music fits the style perfectly (actually enhances it), and, as I already texted you, actually wavers and strays from the anxiety-inducing percussion to lush and beautiful in some parts. The period detail is impeccable. The production design and costumes are incredible and always believable. Most importantly, of course: The performances are AMAZING. And I don’t use the word ‘amazing’ unless I mean it. Phoenix had me *slightly* worried with the teasers that he might come off too ticky, but it is quite an accomplishment. It’s rare to see a performance where I was legit worrying about the other actors in the scene–that’s how unpredictable a powder keg he was. I could not ever predict what he was going to do next (the performer and the character). Sometimes P.T. just holds on his face for an extended period of time and it is so, so moving/funny/sad/disgusting–ALL AT ONCE. Hoffman is much bigger than I thought he would be, but his vacillations from cool/collected to explosive and scary were always believable. And Adams is great and her character and performance grow in power and stature are the movie goes on.

“The film is about 2 hours 10 minutes, but honestly felt longer than that. I *do* think it could be tightened. But it’s a unique vision pushed forward and is unlike anything else out there (besides his past work). There are moments that are heartbreaking and funny and melancholic all in the same beat, and that is an fantastic feat. I would say it’s always good with some great, great moments and scenes peppered throughout.

“A side note: Much of the material from the first couple teaser trailers is not in the film. And when it is, there are different takes used. Just thought that was interesting.”

Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master'

So, here’s a quick breakdown of early reactions to The Master:

  • Phoenix delivers a stunning, tour-de-force, performance that’s somehow more unhinged and hypnotic than his (fake) public meltdown in the doc I’m Still Here.
  • Hoffman and Adams bring their acting A-games and hold their own against Phoenix.
  • The Master carries over the mixture of formalism and Anderson’s stunning visual approach from There Will Be Blood, but forgoes narrative drive in favor of a meandering dreamlike structure.

Furthermore, it seems Master is told from the perspective of Phoenix’s character, whose deteriorating mindset makes him all the less stable a narrator than Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson’s latest appears to lie somewhere between that film and There Will Be Blood, as far as overall style and tone are concerned (an intriguing storytelling approach, for sure).

The Master begins a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on September 14th, 2012.

Source: Hit Fix, Hollywood Elsewhere [via Collider]