The Master

The Master ★★★★★

“If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.”
-Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman)

My friends, I wholeheartedly believe I’ve just witnessed cinematic genius for the first time in a good many years.

I’ve now experienced The Master twice in the space of a week – experienced, not simply watched, as it cannot be described as anything less. I heard some review, though I cannot recall the source, describe this film as the Great American Novel that so many aspiring novelists tenaciously seek to scribe with each passing year, but never quite managing to do so. Screenrant declared in their review that The Master is nothing less than “literature in movie form”, and I would passionately agree with both without hesitation.

The film details the life of naval veteran Freddie Quell as he returns traumatised from the war to face the uncertainty of his future. He floats along on his booze-drenched route, flitting between menial jobs of little consequence, hindered by his own fractured and damaged psyche. By chance, he happens upon The Cause and their leader Lancaster Dodd, a cult founded upon radical concepts of past life and Freudian psychotherapy. He finds temporary solace from his own shortcomings and emotional issues, but even this tranquillity is disrupted as he begins to doubt Dodd’s credibility and honesty.

Directed by now forty-two year old director Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is the director’s sixth work and, arguably, his greatest to date. High praise indeed, given that his catalogue also includes masterpieces such as Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, but a statement I am now willing to stoically defend. This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s undisputed best – his masterwork.

I’ve heard many call this drab, empty, and unimaginative filmmaking, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve even heard The Master labelled as boring. I just can’t understand how someone can believe that though. Many complaints are directed at the waning plot, demonising it for being lacklustre, slow and generally lacking in real content. However, to say The Master is lacking in any department would be to overlook the deeper connotations of the picture. Perhaps, on face value, this may appear as nothing more than the story of Quell and Dodd, but scratch a little further and one can unearth a whole world of extensive meaning; symbolic, allegorical, and thematic issues and concepts abound. Like any piece of great literature, The Master demands the audience’s inference, denying any easy solutions or cheap explanation. Though some viewers were likely perturbed by the very notion of thinking during a movie (heaven forbid), The Master proves to be an intelligent, thoughtful and generally intellectual outing.

I’ve heard it compared to The Tree of Life, and Malick to Anderson, and I would say those are fair associations to draw. Like Malick, Anderson has vehemently stood beside his own unique style, refusing to uptake the traditional Hollywood formatting of his pictures. Much like the aforementioned Malick export, and indeed his own There Will Be Blood, Anderson strives to present a cinematic presentation of life itself; he wishes nothing of his audience, simply that they observe. Observe, and perhaps marvel, for this is cinema of the highest order, an example of film mastery demonstrated so rarely, or at least rarely found to such a fluent and understanding degree.

Much of the film’s success, of course, nestles in the strength of its performances, which can make or break the best and worst that cinema has to offer. The Master, however, offers two of the most unparalleled performances in the history of the medium, with Phoenix in particular on such phenomenal form that he could rival the likes of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver or Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, two of the finest performances ever to grace the screen in my eyes. Words can barely do justice to just how extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix is in this film, it defies belief. It pushes the boundaries of what an actor is expected to deliver in a performance. He embodies an entire generation of broken and ruined veterans from wartime. One could even argue that he betters Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, with one of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever put to film. This mastery of acting extends beyond the way in which he delivers his lines; each facial expression, his forced posture, every element of the role is fully realised by Phoenix. If this man does not receive an Oscar for this then the whole world has well and truly gone to hell.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is equally magnificent. Though I’ve always enjoyed his performances and consider him to be one of the greatest actors in the modern day (or certainly one of the most consistent), even he has never been on better form. He brings Lancaster Dodd to life; he understands this character through and through and is flawless in his execution. Like the character he embodies, Hoffman mesmerises the audience to the point of hinging upon his every word. We believe him, and, like Freddie, are duped into mistaking nonsense and confusion for passion and zealousness.

Beyond the two fantastic leads, the supporting cast also provide marvellous performances demanding a uniform respect. Amy Adams, like Phoenix and Hoffman, has never before delivered such a subtly wonderful display of acting. Her character is such a spectacle to watch, as we truly see who ‘the master’ really is in regards to The Cause. Looking back upon it, I truly could not see any actress doing it better than her. Her appearance is completely juxtapose to the steely fanaticism and devotion of her Peggy Dodd, her constant omnipresence suggesting the real driving force at the core of The Cause. She is the heart of the enterprise, more invested in the idea, even, than Lancaster himself. Again, she is the exact opposite of the fire and explosiveness of Freddie and Lancaster, with a performance both internal and understated.

Visually, the film has little competition this year (or any other for that matter) in terms of the aesthetic appeal. The decision to shoot on 65mm film (shown as 70mm in most theatres) was a bold one, but one that pays off. The choice to discard long-time collaborator Robert Elswit with cinematography Mihai Malaimare Jr. was a brave one, but one that didn’t lead to any detriment in quality. In fact, if anything it improves upon its precursors, with almost perfect composure of every single frame. Talented composer Johnny Greenwood adds his magic touch to the proceedings with another excellent score easily on par with his work on There Will Be Blood. It’s a wonderful, ecstatic thing indeed to see such understanding between a director and his fellow crew, as each man is equally essential in the formation of a sincerely good film.

There were always going to be comparisons to Anderson’s past outings, particularly There Will Be Blood, and whilst the immediate reaction may well be that The Master is one of the least impressive, I would argue it is simply more understated, and actually a far more nuanced and layered work than anything Anderson has crafted prior.

At the end of the day, the tale The Master weaves is not an elaborate web-work of baffling complexity, but rather quite the opposite in fact. It’s plotline is simple, waning and sparse, for this is a story that elevates itself far above anything that a sprawling, complicated narrative could weave, a story each and every one of us can relate to to some degree, whether we wish to see it or not. This is simply the tale of two men, two hopelessly inquisitive men. Ordinary, for all intents and purposes. Yet this is a relationship that transcends its own unassuming modesty, a relationship that is elevated through remarkable direction, awe-inspiring cinematography, and a magnificent screenplay to a pedestal occupied by so few films. It becomes a tale not of two individuals, but as Mankind in its entirety, the human being as a species. It becomes an exploration of all that we are.

Of course the larger themes it confronts do hinge upon the intimate relationship between the two leads, a complex and multifaceted connection that has much going on beyond face value. It’s a difficult relationship to comprehend, but one that, once understood, is entirely relatable and human. Perhaps Hoffman’s line of dialogue best summarises the two lead’s relationship; “But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.

In the end, Quell is simply a dangerous alcoholic. Why then does Dodd so desperately pursue the idea of reprimanding this uncontrollable drunkard? I happened to hear someone draw upon Dodd’s early speech at the wedding reception regarding a dragon, and then listened intensely as the correlated the two separate elements. Quell is Dodd’s dragon, and he the man frantically trying to lasso and control this untamed beast. As is fitting for Hoffman’s character, Freddie represents the last, greatest challenge for Lancaster; a battle of insurmountable odds, driven by his own Freudian egotistical nature. Just as Freddie, who could be seen as representing the Id of the human psyche, is attracted to Dodd’s nature, he in turn seeks to control and rein in his rampart, almost hazardous freedom. In many ways, he appears to see something of himself in Freddie, perhaps from long ago, before Peggy and before The Cause. His sudden, erratic and furious bouts of anger, completely contrasted against his typically calm and collected character, would further suggest this. And when he finally realises that this is a fight he cannot win, that this beast is too unbridled and wild to truly master, we can see that melancholy defeat in his eyes.

That is just one facet of the film one could examine, however. The prevalent themes and ideas of There Will Be Blood (and indeed much of Anderson’s works) are recurrent here, concepts of the importance of family, the history of modern America, and the values and beliefs of the human being. There’s even the patriarchal ‘father/son’ relationship, a thing oft seen in Anderson’s outings.

Other issues come in the form of a master versus the servant, themes of both science and scientology and religion, existentialism. Of course this is a very brief listing of the symbolic elements of The Master, one would be required to go into far more depth to even get an inkling of the genius on display herein. And, as Anderson himself has insisted on many an occasion, The Master is a story about Man. Just Man, as it is in its most basic and primal form. It examines all that Man is, all that he wants and desires, all that he feels.

As mentioned before, The Master is very much an elaborate and complicated affair; it cannot be watched for puerile, mindless entertainment. It’s a film that necessitates the attention of the audience, and Anderson commands it with an outing so painstakingly layered and comprehensive that one could spend an eternity dissecting it. Bold is a word I’ve used multiple times in this review, but never has it been more accurate. The Master is bold, it’s controversial, and it’s highly ambitious. It’s also scarily close to perfection, a pedestal shared by very few films indeed.

VERDICT; The Master raises thousands of questions and is shrouded in a wreath of ambiguity, offering no genuine answers or clarity. But to say this is ‘lazy’ or ‘uninteresting’ filmmaking is inattentive and frankly glib. It’s subtle, sure, but it’s a film of nigh on unrivalled depth. The Master is not an easy film, but is it a good one? No, it’s a bloody tremendous one.

It’s one of the most accomplished films ever created, one that should be held in the same regard the usually cited classics, and one that deserves as much acclaim and critical deconstruction as they have garnered. A true, authentic Master-piece that harks back to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Magnificent.

It’s a rare, rare thing for me to be so passionate about the Academy Awards (which tend to be predictable and thus largely uninteresting), but should this film not sweep up the Oscars I will have lost faith in humanity. Why? Because The Master is as the title states; a masterpiece, Anderson’s masterwork, and more, much more than this, it is also one of the greatest films ever made.

I could write so much on this film, and only after two viewings! One could take any single element of this film and write an essay, I believe. I feel I should probably finish this one somewhere though. Maybe one day soon I’ll be compelled to go into a detailed analysis of The Master’s prominent themes and issues, but until then, adieu.
5/5 or 10/10

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