DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
It doesn't happen often that all elements of what comprises film reach such a high level as with The Master. It brushes with perfection on so many an occasion which left me in complete awe for everyone involved in making this, but mainly because of the three main offenders; Phoenix, Hoffman and Anderson.
Paul Thomas Anderson is unmistakably a unique, powerful and resounding voice in cinema. Whenever he creates, something happens among lovers of film. Whenever he speaks through this wonderful medium I just have to listen. And while not all of his tales are equally impressive, they are always unique in style, content and themes. I find it amazing that a director who has received so much acclaim for his work for both his writing and filmmaking skills never becomes self-indulgent and keeps spinning his yarns with an almost humble sincerity.
And of all his films, this might very well turn out to be my favourite.
The cinematography in The Master is absolutely breathtaking. It captures the time it is set in perfectly. The colour palette is astounding and the way everything is lit adds to that wondrous sense of nostalgia the age it depicts always seems to evoke. All this seems to be facilitated by the meticulous way Anderson works. It is clear that everything presented to us, every single shot, every single scene is tackled with dedication and passion. I've read complaints about this film's pacing and that people felt that there were spells of inertia where absolutely nothing happens. While I recognise those moments and feel that if you're not sucked into this film's rhythm this is a legitimate complaint, I had absolutely no problems with it. Mainly because those pockets of meditative pacing allowed me to gaze and amaze at the beauty of the film and the hand of the composer of the scene at work. I settled into its rhythm without any problems and actually enjoyed the silent moments about as much as the scenes that burst from the screen because of the kinetics created by two actors playing perhaps the best roles in their career.
Phoenix is an astounding actor. His level of dedication is something I admire greatly. Here, he loses himself in the role of Freddy Quell completely. I don't know what he had to do to physically transform himself into this character, but it is simply amazing. Everything in the way Quell carries himself screams agony and despair. He has waged war on his body trying to drown his woes in alcohol and a relentless pursuit of the basest almost animal-like needs. What I loved about Anderson's approach is that he didn't shy away from using close-ups of his actor's faces. There are scenes where Phoenix doesn't say anything, but because we are allowed get up close we still get the full effect of the performance. I often found myself lost in the map of deep lines that trace Phoenix' face, telling his life story with a look in his eye accompanying his face that clearly fought one round to many with the inevitably stronger opponent; life.
Phoenix' performance is fuelled and rivalled by the always fantastic Hoffman. His Master provides an intellectual counterbalance to the animalistic Quell. Hoffman manages to make this character so charismatic that I never once doubted his ability to gather a following, even though he is clearly selling hot air and basically brainwashing people. It is because of Hoffman's performance that Phoenix reaches the level he does. Their interactions are mesmerizing and sparkle with that electricity that only arises when two massive talents meet and are at their best. The two of them manage to make each and every performance from that year null and void, Nothing I have seen this year managed to impress me, engage me and challenge me as much as what these two gentlemen have in offer in this film.
Story wise, this film's themes explore the nature of man and his apparent dependency on a sense of community. It does so through Quell's character whose self destructive nature brings him to just that, a group of people with a pater familias that takes it upon himself to cure him and change him. This constant tug of war between the intellectual persuasive force of The Master and Quell's instinct driven essence is what creates the tension in the narrative. After it had finished Anderson earned my everlasting gratitude for not opting for the easy way out and rounds up his story in a way that appeals to the heart, but in an intellectual way. This film isn't set out to go for cheap emotions, it clearly wants to make its emotive resonance make its way to you through debate and a grim sense of realism about what being human constitutes. And in doing so it conjures up a mischievous smile on my face because of the ambiguity of the title and the rounded realization of one of the best anti-heroes ever put to film.
I'm fully aware that this film will not do for everyone what it did for me and I actually understand that. But for me it resonated on all levels imaginable, as a lover of film and as a human being.