Michael’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Do you often think about how inconsequential you are?"
"Do you believe God will save you?"
Above all else, Freddie is lonely.
I just finished watching the incredibly strange (both incomprehensible yet easy to follow) The Master, and that is the only thing of which I can be certain. It's easy to watch The Master and, like his followers, be compelled towards "the Master" himself (I will withhold the obvious Doctor Who jokes), Lancaster Dodd, as he is a certainly interesting character. So assured in his own transcendence that he feels comfortable refuting scientists and stating opinions on things no human could ever be sure of (reincarnation) with such confidence that it's almost hard not to buy into them. But make no mistake: despite the title that might lead you to believe otherwise, this is Freddie's show through and through.
Beneath the strange plot structure (which could easily be criticized as being aimless, and I don't even think I'd argue with that) and the strange, well, plot, The Master is really not much more than a character study. A peek into the inner workings of Freddie Quell's mind, a wounded soldier in a world before a deeper understanding of PTSD. Joaquin Phoenix gives a nearly unbelievable performance as Quell - he almost unrecognizable in the role, totally transformed. A character that could seem hard to completely connect with becomes familiar and deeply sad in his hands. It didn't even fully hit me until the end, but The Master is a tragedy. Freddie is lonely, he tries to latch on to the only place that accepts him ("I'm the only person who likes you!" Dodd proclaims in one scene), tries to find a home or family, but he faces rejection at every corner. He's unable to adapt. Fuck. This is sad shit. A push and pull exists within Freddie - he wants to adapt to The Cause's pedagogy, but he can't fully commit himself and leave behind his inherent instinctual mindset. He needs a master in his life, someone he can try to please, but at the same time he is fundamentally and irrevocably individual; it can only be so long until he self-destructs.
And, of course, The Master is absolutely gorgeous. Shot on 70mm (save for the handheld shots, which were 35mm), I've rarely seen a film lit, filmed, edited, you name it, this well (and the only Oscars it was nominated for were acting ones - total bullshit). It can go from mind-bendingly beautifully to tragically stark and cold so swiftly and effortlessly that you don't even notice the change until you step back and think about it. The soundtrack is gorgeous, a beautiful mix of period tunes and orchestral swan songs, perfectly pulling the right emotions out of me time and time again. It's rare that a film reaches this kind of technical audio-visual nirvana (but then again, it is PTA), but at the same time, it all feels so effortless. I was in awe throughout the film, my jaw consistently dropped to the floor.
And of the acting, what can I say without delving into vague hyperbole? Every single member of the cast is marvelous - I cannot think of a line delivered wrong, a single note missed. I'm not one to throw around the word "perfect" all willy-nilly, but the acting on display here is perfect. Amy Adams, an actress who I think plays it safe a bit too much (and she's basically always cast as...herself), gives possibly the best performance of her career. Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man who has had an incredibly successful career in cinema, also delivers one of his best performances. I already touched upon how genius Joaquin Phoenix is here. However, when Hoffman and Phoenix are together in a scene, it's simply lightning in a bottle: their energy is undeniable, and it's remarkable to watch. Truly, truly fantastic.
The Master offers much to chew on: the nature of the follower vs. the leader, the effect of the past on our lives (both through PTSD and the "past lives" of the cult members), and I'm sure much, much more than I missed out on in this viewing. The Master is a film that requires multiple viewings, but I'm more than happy to grant them to it. It's hard to describe why this connected with me: some scenes don't really serve an overall purpose to the plot, and there really isn't much of a plot to speak of. It just...did. I was in rhythm with this, I felt connected to it in a way I haven't felt in a long time. I'm always a bit prone to hyperbole after watching a great movie for the first time, but I wouldn't be surprised if The Master proved to be one of my favorite movies of 2010s, perhaps ever. I can't say I completely understood all the decisions PTA made, but I loved each and every one nonetheless.
"If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then left the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history of the world."