‘The Master’ commands Oscar buzz with rapt reviews at Venice debut

Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated film “The Master” unspooled at the Venice filmfest Saturday to a rousing reception. Presented in 70 mm it will screen in the same format as a Special Presentation at the Toronto filmfest next week before opening on Sept. 14.

Anderson’s script traces the rise of a new religion similar to Scientology. The film follows Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix), a drifter who falls under the spell of the charismatic religious leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his dutiful wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams).

Nancy Tartaglione, international editor of Deadline, writes: “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. The pair engages in a pas-de-deux throughout the lush film almost erasing every other player – save Amy Adams who is compelling when on screen.”

Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy concurs: “In a work 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 one another and yet, in the end, have an oddly negligible mutual effect. The majesterial style, eerie mood and forbidding central characters echo Anderson’s last film, ‘There Will Be Blood,’ a kinship furthered by another bold and discordant score by Jonny Greenwood.”

And Oliver Lyttleton (Indie Wire) writes: “Joaquin Phoenix is indeed as titanic as early buzz suggested. Snarling and mumbling, sometimes to the point of inaudibility, Freddie’s clearly haunted by a drunk father and psychotic mother, and by his experiences in war (subtly alluded to without ever being spelt out – he’s a little more lucid and in control in pre-war flashback sequences) … Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are certainly in the same league as Phoenix here. Hoffman … gives what might be a career-best turn as the titular Master. It’s less showy than his Truman Capote, for sure, but from his very first scene, one instantly sees the charisma, the ego and the flaws of the man. Adams, meanwhile, doesn’t get as much to do, but she’s cast beautifully against type as his wife Mary Sue, in public the supportive, folksy, ever-pregnant spouse, in private the Lady Macbethish power behind the throne, and someone who clearly has her husband wrapped around her little finger.”