The films of Paul Thomas Anderson are a work of rare beauty. As mere audiences members, it is difficult to conceptualize the amount of thought and meticulous care Anderson gives to each film, (let alone each scene). His techniques are sensational, and in his newly released film The Master, we again are presented with a masterful work of art.
As an example of contemporary stand out film-making, The Master bristles with vivid moments and unbeatable acting. Its intrigue is not in narrative satisfactions but rather the excesses and extremes of human behavior as it relates to the interplay of troubled souls desperate to find their footing.
While it’s been widely reported, (and even acknowledged by Paul Thomas Anderson), that L. Ron Hubbard was an inspiration for the character of Lancaster Dodd (played by Hoffman), the film is not about the development of Hubbard’s Scientology. The ties between the real-life religion and the fictitious cult of The Master are indeed enlightening, but act as only a significant side to the main center of the film.
The Master focuses on Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a G.I. who has been psychologically damaged by his participation in World War II. As he returns home without prospects or plan, Freddie becomes enmeshed in Dodd’s group of fanatical followers when he drunkenly stumbles aboard the boat of the “The Master.” Freddie quickly rises through the ranks, becoming Dodd’s right-hand man, but his problems, (alcoholism and a hair-trigger temper), prove to be difficult to resolve by Dodd’s pseudo-psychology. He remains a deeply disturbed individual and Dodd’s inability to “cure” him causes several of those in The Master’s inner circle, including his wife (Amy Adams), to question whether Freddie should be cast out.
Much of The Master is about the dynamic between Freddie and Lancaster. Lancaster’s influence on the psychologically tortured ex-GI is profound and pernicious. However, Freddie’s inability to be ‘cured’ represents a failure of The Master’s “process” and is taken as a personal hit to Lancaster’s pride. Many of the one-on-one scenes with Hoffman and Phoenix burst with energy. These two are so compelling when sharing the screen that the movie suffers when either are missing.
The increasing anticipation around the film comes from Joaquin Phoenix’s grand return to cinema. Phoenix arguably gave his best performance to date, brilliantly playing an absolutely unique, must-see character. To portray Freddie, Phoenix underwent a challenging physical transformation into a gaunt, sick-looking man with stooped shoulders and a shambling gait. Phoenix just buries himself in Freddie’s persona and there’s never a moment when we disbelieve him. The scenes in which Freddie loses control are forceful, effective and never over-step its boundaries.
In support are both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams who play their roles phenomenally and there is little doubt that Hoffman will get Oscar consideration. Hoffman’s Lancaster is both charismatic and aggressive, who is easily aggravate by opposition to his cause. His performance is tense and intriguing, speaking strongly to his wide-range of talents within the film, and highlighting his illustrious career as actor. Adams’ will probably not get the respect she deserves for her role, due to size of the part. Adams’ take on Lancaster’s wife is disturbing and creepy, yet it works. She fascinates us with here emotionless face and stern personality, while maintaining a tone of both dominating and submissive in character. Like most of the supporting characters, moments with Adams are intriguing, and leaves a strong desire for more.
When viewing The Master, take into consideration that the film is about character interaction, not character development. We learn little about Lancaster’s past and don’t get a real sense of whether he even believes everything he says. We see though a well-crafted dialog, his powers of persuasion, his ability to charm like a snake oil salesman, and his occasional bursts of rage. At times he appears to be his wife’s puppet and then will later override and dismiss her. We understand Freddie better. He is given a back story, but his personality is immutable, which seems to be Anderson’s intent on showing forcefully how Lancaster’s “processing” fails. Freddie’s point-of-view, which is difficult to decipher, provides our portal into the story. The Fantasy and dream sequences are intermixed with reality and Freddie, hiding his feeling and thoughts, never reveals whether Lancaster is making progress ‘curing’ him until a sudden out-burst of uncontrollable temper.
Where The Master faces criticism falls within its unconventional narrative. There is no arc to the story. It’s a flat-lined plot that is not necessarily dull, but leaves you wondering when the film will truly begin. There is very little suspense, yet it burst with tension. Each scene is fantastically shot, and is logically pieced together, but as a whole never amounts to anything. There is no climax, nor closure, yet neither of which is needed to feel satisfaction because we are not left hanging. Its difficult to say whether this should count as a negative to the film because this unusual style of narrative is certainly creative and doesn’t hinder the experience of the movie.
Final Verdict: The Master is contemporary film-making at its best. All parts of the production are phenomenal, and the world Paul Thomas Anderson creates is intriguing and captivating. If you are a film connoisseur, who closely follows the Oscar run, The Master is a must see feature. If you pay little attention to such glorified cinema rituals, well, then you still shouldn’t miss this film. Paul Thomas Anderson is a one of a kind director who is a master himself. He has truly perfected his crafted and deserves much appreciation for his unique artistry.