The Master is, at best, the second best buddy picture of the season, delivering far less than End of Watch (and also Looper, depending on whether you can be buddies with a future version of yourself, as Bruce Willis is to Joseph Gordon-Levitt). You might quibble with how I define buddy picture--Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell is theoretically a disciple of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd--but I think they're more ill-matched, liver-abusing pals than anything else.
Paul Thomas Anderson will always win a competition in filmmaking virtuosity. As with the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood, I had the feeling that The Master might be an unqualified masterpiece. The department store sequence is a tawdry story told magisterially, with its gleaming marble, tinkling Waterford and bread-filtered dark room beverages. Anderson moves through the building once left to right, following the elegant movements of a fire-breathing fur coat model. A couple of minutes later, Quell slips and thrashes his way out of the store from right to left, a trail of broken crystal behind him. He escapes to the most beautiful shot of dewy, dawn cabbages you'll ever see.
But the narrative loses its way, as Anderson has allowed his films to do far too often, leaving things in The Master in even further disarray than in There Will Be Blood. And without even the salve of instant icon Daniel (Day-Lewis) Plainview and a stronger Jonny Greenwood score.
I wanted Anderson to give me a moment or two of cultish chills on a level with John Hawkes' acoustic "She's Just a Picture" in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Dodd is a funnier, less-Koreshy zealot, with laughter as the surprising (and unsatisfying) key to his Split-Sabered salvation. (I do have to single out for praise the half moment where caballero Dodd pauses for effect in the desert with Quell dragging his treasure chest to the light.) Minutes of screen time pass in the seemingly crucial passage where Dodd exhorts Quell to make short peregrinations between the window and the wall but the vague resolution of this exercise proves less affecting than the formulation in "Get Low" (by renowned auteur Lil Jon).
As with TWBB, there's a jarring dislocation and truncated third act. Quell nods off in a movie house and is awoken by an overseas call from Dodd, who would like some Kool cigarettes to be hand delivered. This is sub-Lynchian is-it-a-dream? stuff and I only wish someone had murmured a menacing "Silencio." Quell finds Dodd in London, sitting before an absurdly large (Kane-sized, really) set of windows.
Sitting to one side of the principal actors, who attack their roles like competitive eaters hitting 36 oz. porterhouses, is Amy Adams, the best thing in the film. She gives a white-tank-topped Dodd a savage sinkside masturbating, changes her eye color to an alluring black and delivers the best line of the show: "this is something you do for a billion years or not at all."
David Ayer is a name I can't seem to retain. I just had to look it up again to confirm he directed the superb cop film End of Watch. It doesn't have Paul Thomas Anderson visuals, Joaquin Phoenix Method transformation or Philip Seymour Hoffman howling at the moon. The film is powered by Jake Gyllenhaal, in easily my favorite post-Darko performance (full disclosure: I have not seen Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), and his remarkable chemistry with Michael Peña. In a sense, with the "you look like the guys outside Home Depot," "oh, the baristas are excellent...enjoy your white people shit," ball-busting banter, their relationship mirrors the Schrader-Gomez friendship in Breaking Bad, but Ayer's lines are consistently funnier, and the love between Brian and Mike is palpable (Gyllenhaal has not been this compelling since philosophizing on The Smurfs and I can't think of Peña in another good film (Hollywood feels a breakout coming though: his next film is Chavez, in which he plays Cesar Chavez, who probably features prominently)).
End of Watch is a work drama and the office is a cop car. Large chunks of time away from patrol are elided and the crucial developments in Brian and Mike's professional lives dictate the plot more than their travails outside the Crown Vic. It's a very Californian film, with hyper-aggressive groups forever in cars swooping through the streets and alleys of the Newton division in south L.A. The cops are shadowed by Sinaloa cartel foot soldiers in a minivan that seems incongruous until they slide open the side door for semiautomatic weapons fire.
Ayer avoids the "woman problem" I often find in cop movies. Without enough time to fully draw female characters some (almost exclusively male) directors will make the girlfriends/wives outlandish scenery chewers to compensate. My personal choice for most rewatchable cable film, Michael Mann's Heat, features the greatest action set piece of all time but gets bogged down by non-work relationships (Pacino's wife Diane Venora is a below replacement level Demi Moore and every time Ashley Judd appears it's time to get something from the other room). And it takes some restraint to limit Anna Kendrick's End of Watch screen time--she is as adorable as you'd imagine as Brian's love interest: removing a handwritten list of fuck buddies from his wallet, displaying instant rapport with Mike's wife (played by Natalie Martinez) and singing along to Cam'ron's delightful "Hey Ma". You could make a smaller buddy movie with other two cops in the division, the tight-bunned America Ferrara and Cody Horn (the latter is often shouting at handcuffed people in stern Spanish, if you're into that kind of thing...ahem). The women in End of Watch are compelling but their roles are concise.
Back in the patrol car Mike gives Brian the best marriage advice I've heard. He asks, "can you live without her?" when Brian says he thinking of proposing, and says that if he can he has to be man enough walk away. No one could possibly live without Anna Kendrick but, for the rest of us schmoes, it's wise counsel. We have to wonder how long our police are going to live as they begin, as one officer describes it, pulling on the tail of the cartel beast. They pull over a tricked-out pickup and discover Liberace's AK-47, bedazzled with the telltale opulence of drug cartel associates. Their keen observation of some trash bags uncover a human trafficking way station and suddenly they're on a hit list.
My notes trailed off in the last act of the movie as I was too stressed out by what I was watching too make proper ironic commentary. Brian and Mike are ambushed by their fatalistic cartel shadows--trapped in a warren of apartments where the LAPD "calvary" can't penetrate. It becomes clear that this isn't one of those action films where everyone walks away unscathed and End of Watch has the real stakes that are missing from the climax (if there is one) of The Master.