Here it is, after a viewing, pondering, and much procrastination, my review of the newest film by Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master. And boy, oh boy, will this be a tricky one.
The first question to ask about The Master is, what is it about? And this is by no means an easy question to answer. While the plot itself is relatively simple; Freddie Quell, a man who was in the navy in World War II finds himself adrift, both physically and metaphorically when the war ends, and meets another man, the eponymous Master. But the question of what the film is about is much more difficult to answer. While it was in production, the film came under fire due to it’s alleged parallels with Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. And there are some elements of this in play, particularly with the character of The Master himself, and his pseudo-religion, The Cause, but this is by no means the crux of the story. The focus of the film is arguably Freddie, so the film is also something of a character study of him, a man adrift without purpose, almost animalistic, being influenced by this cult. And then, there’s the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster Dodd (the eponymous Master), which I think is the core of the film; through them the film explores themes of influence, repression, and sexuality, with the relationship between them playing out like a seduction, turning into an almost abusive one, with an undercurrent of repression and homo-eroticism lingering beneath the system.
Yes, it sounds perhaps overly difficult in some ways to decipher, but, pretentious as this may sound, the almost labyrinthine story of the film is one of it’s greatest strengths, the ever-present enigma of the film allowing a wealth of interpretations and discussion, the film is truly fascinating.
Visually, the film truly is something special. I was fortunate enough to see the film in 70MM, and, while the film of course does not have extravagant visual set pieces, it is aesthetically, perhaps the best film I’ve seen all year, the cinematography is gorgeous and picturesque, as well as saying so much about the characters, as it presents to us Freddie on a boat, simply adrift, a man lost at sea in more than one way.
For me, Anderson has always been a more accomplished writer than director. Even in his excellently realised epics like Magnolia, his writing has always seemed a step ahead of the way he directs. The Master however, sees his direction taken up a notch, finally on a level with his exceptional writing. The script is well paced, moving no faster than it needs to, but always having enough of importance happening to stop it from becoming stagnant or needing to find it’s feet again partway through. The direction contains plenty of Anderson’s typical audacious moments, once again, with a purpose that works surprisingly well. In this case, both of these moments take the form of musical numbers sung by Lancaster. The first includes a bizarre nude dream sequence along with it, being shown to us from the perspective of any number of characters, and saying fascinating things about all of them, and another, an intimate, albeit bizarre serenading of Freddie. And that is where Anderson’s direction is a triumph, in it’s intimacy. The Master is another long, suitably grand film in Anderson’s style, but through focusing on only a few characters, it creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity with these characters.
I’m yet to mention the performances, or even the actors, but now I’m going to, but they truly must be mentioned, each giving perhaps the best performances of their careers.
Freddie is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what will go on to perhaps be a career defining portrayal of Freddie. Everything about it is excellent, from his always slightly hunched posture and knuckle dragging, his animalistic physicality is carried over to his anger, when he lets it out, screaming and cursing at Dodd, it is a sight to behold. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent Anderson collaborator, plays The Master, in what could be the performance of his career, one that is filled with versatile, and excellent performances. As Lancaster, he shows his authority through his body and his voice, everything well measured, a word never wasted, he is the antithesis of Freddie, which makes their relationship and the duality of their personalities all the more interesting to watch as it unfolds and develops. And then, there’s Amy Adams, doing unquestionably her best work as the Machiavellian, Lady Macbeth like Peggy, Lancaster’s wife. While this film may be losing some of its awards traction, all of these actors should, and probably will be rewarded with nominations and possibly wins come awards night.
The Master, while polarising among audiences, is a film that I loved; thematically strong with a trinity of wonderful performances at its core, this film ranks highly in Anderson’s canon, and even if you’re on the side of the audience that may not like it, if you haven’t seen it yet, I implore you to, it is utterly fascinating and unique. One of the best films of the year, easily.