By Dirk Sonniksen | September 13, 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek
In the opening scenes of The Master we learn that Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled soul and doesn’t gel with the rest of the guys. Freddie’s one saving grace is his ability to cook up booze that would make the most seasoned moonshiners squirm. After a stint in World War II, Freddie sets out to make a life for himself, but his demons plague him (along with his booze), and Freddie can’t make it work. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on a cruise of sorts, and Freddie is introduced to Lancaster’s “organization” known as The Cause. In the world of The Cause, everyone listens to Master, and though Freddie at first appears an avid disciple, his listening skills begin to wane as he struggles to make sense of Dodd’s philosophy.
The Master is a film that deals in fractured lives, individuals haunted by their past, and those that cling to others or an institution to find some kind of solace…and those who take advantage of said individuals. Freddie is certainly the biggest train wreck in the story, but Dodd has his share of issues, as do the remainder of the principal characters. One of the brilliant aspects of The Master is that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson hits on Freddie and Lancaster’s woe with some wonderful visual symbolism, but without it being force-fed (cue long shot/monologue spelling out your woe far too directly), from Freddie’s issues with women and mom, to Lancaster’s odd, quasi-symbiotic relationship with his wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams.
Praise for Anderson’s script will likely take a backseat to the performances in The Master, and it’s not surprising. If anyone was writing off Joaquin Phoenix for his previous escapades, they should reconsider. From the first scenes, Phoenix locks you in completely with an intensity that you don’t see in many actors. That intensity continues throughout the film, and Phoenix has some physical moments that make one wonder if he did not come out of this film without injuries.
The only Oscar competition Phoenix is likely to have is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. It’s as if Hoffman took every eccentric acting coach he ever had and combined it with his most convincing snake oil salesman. Hoffman does outstanding work playing the ultimate bullshitter, but behind his BS, there is some shared emotional wreckage that plants Freddie and Lancaster on common ground. Hoffman was also quite effective at projecting a calm but authoritative father-figure persona, a trait that is a must for any cult leader who must placate his flock.
Shot on 65mm film (the negative, then printed on 70mm), The Master will be shown primarily in digital format, although it will be screened in 70mm at a few select theaters. If the opportunity presents itself, I urge you to see the film in its intended format. Is 70mm more pleasing visually than digital? Yes. If you’re old enough to remember the great films from the 60s with that big, fat, luscious look – that’s it. But Anderson’s choice of format is but a small piece of what makes The Master visually stunning. Cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare, Jr. contributes his own style with shots that seem oddly generic, but with a weirdly homey feel to them, and Anderson’s directorial style certainly played a part in the look of the film.
It’s difficult to find fault with The Master — trust me, I tried. It’s a brilliant script that speaks to all the weird, tortured folk who are unable to find the right step in life. It’s cinematography that harkens back to the days when cinematography meant something instead of simply creating the biggest scene imaginable, and then inserting characters via CGI. It’s an amazing cast without a dud in the bunch. It’s everything cinema should be, could be, but will be only on occasion.
The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film in five years, and only his sixth in sixteen years. Anderson may not churn out a movie every year, but he makes up for long absences with great films, and this is his best. Some may take issue with my assessment, citing There Will Be Blood as the quintessential Anderson film. This is my Anderson film.