[Review] – The Master

30 Sep

Title: The Master
Year: 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons
MPAA Rating: R, sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Runtime: 137 min
IMDb Rating: 8.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Metacritic: 85

First of all: you’re going to have to bear with me here, this will probably be one of my long reviews. That’s because, of course, not only is The Master one of the most buzzed about films of the year, but it’s also a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, my favorite director. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may know I love lists, I love quantifying stuff from favorite movies to favorite long-takes, whatever. My list of favorite directors is a revolving door of greats, but for quite some time now I’ve known that, no matter which masters of cinema occupy the spots right below him, Paul Thomas Anderson is the solid number 1 for me.

Even for those who don’t put Mr. Anderson atop of their personal lists (which is obviously fine) they should be able to objectively still admit he’s one of the three greatest living American filmmakers under the age of 50. I think that’s objective, right? This is his sixth film since 1996’s Hard Eight (known as Sydney amongst many of us) and all films of his have been about some kind of family, about fathers and sons and about loneliness, too. So much has been said about The Master being all about Scientology, there are, of course, influences of that here, but it’s really about so much more. It’s like when people said There Will Be Blood was about oil.

I love his films because of how it’s not all that much about stuff that’s happening as far as tangible events but much more about the inward processes that its characters are dealing with. The stuff that they show, the real raw human emotions that they touch upon are really something. The Master tells the story of two characters: the great Philip Seymour Hoffman (on his fourth Paul Thomas Anderson movie) playing Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard figure who funds The Cause and welcomes lost souls ready to become believers; and Joaquin Phoenix giving the performance of a lifetime as Freddie Quell, one of those lost souls, a young Naval veteran who comes back home severely scarred by the world he saw in the war that becomes Dodd’s right-hand man.

Like every other film Mr. Anderson has made this millennium (Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) this film feels kind of claustrophobic at time because of how quiet and personal it feels as it focusses on the story of these two men who together form the father-and-son bond and with the rest of the cast form one of those bizarre second families every single one of Mr. Anderson’s film focusses on. But even as you only get the take of these two very different and peculiar men, The Master still manages to take on a more universal kind of feel, to illustrate what was happening to the men in post-war America, the feeling of isolation that ensued and the desperate need to then be accepted into some kind of community.

That’s what I love about Paul Thomas Anderson, how even when he was making the more epic and loud films he started out with it was very easy to close in on the far more personal and delicate aspects of them. They are all really neat character studies at their core. The Master is that, too. It also may just be the least accessible of Mr. Anderson’s films and probably one of his very best, too.

I thought about writing a paragraph about each of Mr. Anderson’s movie and what they dealt with and how they connected to each other, but I thought that I really should stick to the film at hand here. This is a beautiful film, one that lasts 137 minutes and that, as challenging as it is at times, is always thoroughly compelling because of how thoughtful and smart it is and because of the trio of powerhouse performances at its center. You’ll have to pardon me the pun but Paul Thomas Anderson is the real master here and I’m damn proud to be his follower.

This really is important and vital American filmmaking at its core; Steven Spielberg‘s upcoming Lincoln may be about the most beloved President the U.S. has had during a pivotal time in history, but I really do think no other film this year will speak about the country like The Master does. Freddie is just a lost soul, an alcoholic who experienced a really harsh childhood only to be thrust into a harsher reality still, experiencing the horrors of war and now having to work as a photographer. Mr. Phoenix plays him with this kind of silent craziness that makes the performance not only the best in his career but, unless something truly out of the ordinary comes our way in the next three months, the best performance of 2012, male or female, bar none.

Mr. Phoenix shared the Best Actor prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival with Mr. Hoffman, something that I loved because they really make each other better here and because both performances are true wonders of acting and I just hope Mr. Hoffman is campaigned for Supporting Actor at the Oscars so that they can both have a chance at gold and don’t split votes. While Mr. Phoenix goes all out with his performance and gives this raw, in-the-moment performance, Mr. Hoffman offers a much more nuanced take on his character, which is just as enthralling.

The relationship between Freddie and Dodd is tremendous, they love each other, they compete against each other, they are father and son, mentor and protégé, master and, as Dodd says, “guinea pig”. There’s so much to this relationship, so much to this movie, a movie that can seem straightforward if you want to look at it this way but it’s also so deep and challenging in many other ways, which is why it’s meant to be seen at least twice to really be able to fully grasp.

The other performance of note here is, of course, the one given by the great Amy Adams, a three-time Academy Award nominee herself who should definitely get a chance at winning for this. It’s the less flashier of the trio of performances by a mile, but it’s also a highly effective one. She’s Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s wife, the ideal family woman, always with a child in tow, who quietly seems to be the one that guides the hand of her husband in order to reach that empire, the 1950’s Lady Macbeth if you will. It’s a fantastic performance from Ms. Adams who’s definitely one of the greatest actresses of her generation, one that shows just how much people are ready to do in order to achieve such an empire and what they are ready to become.

It really is a tremendous film. Not only are the performances exquisite from the lead actors to the person with the least screen-time and not only does Mr. Anderson give a typically masterful direction, but the below-the-line talent is just stunning as well. Radiohead‘s Johnny Greenwood provides the score, like he did in There Will Be Blood, and it works even better here; the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is breathtaking; the editing from Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty; the production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk. Every little element here is just absolutely top-notch.

I feel as though I’m just babbling here, but that’s probably because by writing this I’m being able to fully form impressions about The Master. Like I said, it’s obviously an expertly-crafted film that’s impossible not to admire, a masterpiece, I dare say, but I’m still not sure just how much I love it and exactly where I rank it in Mr. Anderson’s oeuvre. What I love the most is how Mr. Anderson wrote Freddie to really represent the collective post-war America that may try to put on a nice facade but who’s every little twitch and sneer expose this traumatized soul, I love how he shows us that it’s obvious then that cult figures like Dodd will spring up and that the damaged men like Freddie will be so vulnerable under his spell.

This is a film that’s challenging because it’s misshapen on purpose and because the stuff that you don’t understand about these men is not explained for a reason. It’s meant to be this dense and frustrating at times, you’re not supposed to get all of it, certainly not on a first seating, it’s meant to unsettle and to give you a new take on Mr. Anderson’s favorite topic of the father-son bond. There’s a lot to take from The Master, a claustrophobic epic that’s difficult and mysterious, like the two men at its center.

There Will Be Blood, (rightfully) praised by many critics as one of the best ten films of the first decade of the new millennium, turned off some because it really wasn’t approachable at all, because it was cold and rather aggressive, because the movie begins with more than 10 minutes in which the only thing you hear is a piercing silence. This one’s probably harder to get into and yet it’s probably a more beautiful movie all around, it’s heartbreaking, it has some individual shots that, to talk about lists again, would probably end up in my “Top 20 individual shots” list, it’s sophisticated, it’s meditative, it’s about authority, it has three Oscar-wothy performances from three of the greatest actors. It’s masterpiece, one of the best movies of the decade, the kind that you need to see many times to fully grasp; and I really can’t wait to see it again.

Grade: A+


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