Paul Thomas Anderson is quite possibly the greatest living director working today. After five [long] years since his last film (which many believe to be his best) There Will Be Blood, Anderson returns with The Master starring Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The anticipation and high expectations surrounding this film have been greater than that for most blockbusters. Many people (myself included) have been excited for this film since the moment the premise was announced. With that said, is The Master a great and monumental entry into the world of cinema, or is it just another film you’ll forget the minute the credits roll? Find out after the jump.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a naval veteran in World War II who struggles to function in the “normal” world. His random violent outbursts and continuous alcohol abuse prevent him from interacting with people on almost any level. That is until one faithful night when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a wealthy family man who takes an interest in Freddie. Knowing he has no real home or family, Lancaster takes Freddie in and involves him in what’s only referred to as ‘The Cause’, a religion of sorts that resembles a cult more than anything else. ‘The Cause’ keeps the unstable Freddie occupied, and friendship with Lancaster grows into something more like a father/son relationship. Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s passionate wife becomes increasingly concerned about Freddie and his erratic and unpredictable nature, whilst at the same time defending ‘The Cause’ in any way possible. Can Freddie and Lancaster’s friendship withstand the disapproval of Lancaster’s family and Freddie’s further understanding of what ‘The Cause’ is?
Even with the high expectations I had for The Master, and the hopes I had that it would be a visual feast filled with rich and complex characters by one of the masters of cinema, I can say that the film even exceeded those anticipations and expectations. This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most challenging film yet, with the character of Freddie [whom we follow throughout] being someone no human being would ever want to encounter – his behavior at times makes investing in his character difficult. Lancaster on the otherhand is a person you could easily spend time with, and you can’t help but listen to every word he says.
Their characters aren’t instantly accessible ones, but their bond is beyond words, and despite appearances, their personalities aren’t so different. One scene involving Lancaster almost interrogating Freddie makes for one of the most emotional moments in cinema of this year or any year; and it’s at this moment where your dedication to these characters instantly pay off. It’s a moment of sheer cinematic perfection.
Paul Thomas Anderson is best known for Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, four masterpieces that allow damaged and/or inaccessible characters to drive the story. We fall in love with them, we understand them, we see glimpses of sadness and love in their struggle for power and happiness. It’s all of this and the infusion of creativity and originality that makes his movies what they are. The Master is his most challenging film yet – Freddie may be his most damaged character and also proves to be one of great complex. The Master is also one of, if not his most emotional film to date ( at least since Magnolia). No easy answers are given and a cloud of ambiguity fills the air in many scenes, it however always includes the audience and welcomes observation, not judgement.
The performances by Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams are the best of their careers, especially that given by Phoenix. You’ll instantly forget Phoenix the actor, as he becomes Freddie from the first moment you lay eyes on him. It’s not a performance, it’s a transformation. The score by Johnny Greenwood (who last did the score for There Will Be Blood) is perfect, giving scenes a real sense of wonder, menace and ultimately melancholy – it seamlessly accompanies the emotional film-making and performances on display. The direction and screenplay by Anderson is beyond multi-layered and involving, and as mentioned before is one of his best. To challenge the audience with characters such as these is what movies are meant to do. It’s easy to make someone nice and lovable, the real trick is making us care for someone we’d run from if we ever saw them on the street.
To clarify; The Master is not a film about Scientology – ‘The Cause’ is merely secondary to the characters and their interactions and decisions. If it were about ‘The Cause’ itself, the film wouldn’t be as involving or monumental.
Some will hate The Master, as [mentioned earlier] it’s challenging viewing. The characters are ones you have to stick with and give time to, despite it initially feeling like you’ll never connect to them. Even those who don’t enjoy The Master should be able to appreciate the effort that’s put into each frame, as it resembles nothing you’ve seen before. In an age where prequels, sequels and adaptations with familiar characters and plot developments are the norm, The Master stands out as a cacophony of originality. To put it simply, this is one of the greatest films ever made. Its magic, complexity and honesty are the reasons why we endure and love cinema. See it on the biggest screen you can and be reminded why cinema and the magic of movies are what can define this odd thing we call life.
By Chris Elena
The Master opens the Cockatoo Island Film Festival in Sydney on October 24 with director Paul Thomas Anderson in attendance. The director will also take part in a Q&A session after a special 70mm screening of the film at The Astor in Melbourne on October 25. The film is released nationally on November 8.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Runtime: 137 Minutes
Release Date(s): Australia: November 8, 2012; USA: September 21, 2012; New Zealand: no date set