Visionary director Paul Thomas Anderson is without a doubt one of the most inventive filmmakers of the past decade. He’s made one true masterpiece and a handful of equally methodical films that implant themselves in the minds of people around the world. PT Anderson is a true artist and his latest film The Master is an impressive and mostly beautiful picture to look at, but underneath all of the career-best performances and underneath Jonny Greenwood‘s hypnotic score rests a film that’s deeply personal and evasive, but a shortcoming that just doesn’t click on the levels that it should.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Navy war veteran, freshly dropped off on homeland with a list of problems that could go on for days. He’s a big drinker, often times mixing up his own special brand of beverage and he’s also obsessed with sex. His life is fragile and weak and open for anyone to pluck him up and make him apart of something.
That something is a group called The Cause, led by scientist/physicist/philosopher Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his equally powerful wife Peggy (Amy Adams). The two are well brought up beings that share a unique and important vision on the world and they’re expressing this vision with those that want to listen or follow. The Cause instantly becomes something that Freddie wants to know more of, because he desperately needs something or someone to connect with on a level higher than just sexual encounters.
He’s hopeless and angry and sad and all of these things that The Cause can supposedly cure and help sculpt into a more obedient person.
Lancaster and Freddie quickly hit it off over Freddie’s alcohol and the talks of simple, yet hidden men. Director Paul Thomas Anderson anchors The Master‘s existence with their relationship and its many ups and downs. The two genuinely seem to connect with one another and that brings trouble to The Cause and to Lancaster’s wife Peggy.
Peggy only sees a drunk in Freddie and someone that will corrupt the very foundation that she and her husband have worked so hard at building, but Lancaster sees a man that needs saving. He believes very deeply in saving this man or else it is The Cause that has failed and not Freddie.
This perplexing situation drives The Master and pushes it to be Paul Thomas Anderson‘s most internal film yet. The Master is ambitious and a lasting film that isn’t afraid to explore the deepest of emotions and feelings, while also asking the audience to put in as much effort into watching the film as the cast and crew put into making the film. Some might simply write it off as too artistic or confusing, while others will call it perfect due to its high marks across the board, but I’m forced to sit here and call it a technical achievement, worthy of high praise and appreciation, but a film that also suffers from strong disconnect.
The characters are equally flawed and complex, which isn’t a negative remark on the film. Joaquin Phoenix physically transforms himself into the drunken fool Freddie, with a hunched back and a squinted face that shows his past mistakes without a single word having to be spoken, which isn’t to say that his squeaky and unsure voice doesn’t add to the role. Phoenix is the very definition of embodying a role and becoming the character, because after watching him you’ll probably have troubles looking at the actor the same ever again.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the ruler of the pack, the husband and the friend with a set of standards and rules that seem stable and unbreakable. It’s in the rocky reveal of Lancaster’s true turmoil that Hoffman’s performance cements him as an actor that will forever be known as a heavy-hitter. Philip Seymour Hoffman has starred in some really good films over his impressive career, but his role in The Master just might be his very best, if only for the time being. He always brings his A-work when teaming up with PT Anderson and The Master is no different.
A performance that might come from out of nowhere is Amy Adams‘ Peggy; the controlling behind-the-scenes wife that is lovely and soft-spoken on the outside, but demanding and aggressive on the inside. Adams hits harder than Phoenix or Hoffman, because her performance is constantly working on both sides of the field. She’s the real motivating factor behind Lancaster’s success and she’s also the good and proper image that The Cause needs to continue operating as something that isn’t just a crazed cult full of lunatics.
The Master contains lush cinematography, giving the entire film a dream-like state of being that’s beautiful and just another reminder of how much better film can sometimes look over digital. The eerie score by Jonny Greenwood accompanies the stunning imagery; moving freely as the film progresses. PT Anderson‘s work on a visual level is unmatchable and The Master gives There Will Be Blood a run for its money when it comes to sweeping camera movement and precise placement. It’s very much a smaller experience that spends most of its time indoors and up-close with the characters interacting, but Anderson lets the 50s come to life through the use of great sets, costume designs and numerous outdoor shots that complement the scope and feel of shooting in 65mm.
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master is something that will live with you long after the lights go dim. It’s almost impossible to completely soak up the film in one viewing, which makes this review a reaction to my initial viewing and not the viewings that are sure to come. Disappointed isn’t the word I’d use to describe a film that spends so much of its time tackling inner demons and such basic human urges. Anderson has successfully made the film that he’s wanted to make, but in doing so he disconnects the audience from the film and makes the overall experience feel less like a viewing and more like a cold study. Not simply just a character study, but a study of man and a study of man’s reaction to events in life that are beyond his control.
The study never becomes a timeless experience or anything more than just a well-made film that works on a technical level, but misses the bar when delivering a story worthy of continuous praise. There’s just so much to take in. Multiple viewings seem necessary, but almost in an exhausting manner. It’s hard following one of the greatest movies ever made (There Will Be Blood) with something that’s so distinctive and ambiguous.
The Master isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson‘s best film and it isn’t exactly his worst film, but it will continue to divide audiences and challenge moviegoers around the world.
The Master – 8.5/10