The Master

The Master ★★★★★

The Master is another one of those films that I had to let marinate in my mind for a while before being able to write a review about it. Paul Thomas Anderson took a gamble with this film, making it a meandering, intellectual exercise rather than a cheap, accessible drama. And though because of this, it's not a film that speaks to everyone, I believe it was a gamble that paid off. The narrative is simple and seemingly aimless, but beneath this exterior is a vast story that extends to incredible depths.

The Master is loosely based on Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, and it shows, but it also goes much farther than that. It is an intricate portrait of cults in the 1950's, the way they are viewed, the way they function, and the way their members interact with one another. Anderson pulls off a remarkable feat, making the members of "The Cause" simultaneously relatable yet still inherently unnatural. This is true of all the major players in this film, their moral ambiguity providing an interesting dynamic which makes your feelings for them constantly shift. The Master features some of the finest acting of this decade, namely Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the Master. Rarely do you find actors who can play off each other so perfectly with such excellent chemistry. Both characters are damaged men, one a self-destructive, animalistic drifter, the other a false prophet obsessed with providing answers for all of life's hard questions and fixing mankind's imperfections.

Phoenix's Freddie Quell is an utterly convincing character, degenerate yet sympathetic, whose twisted, slouching body perfectly mirrors the damaged mind it contains. It's virtually impossible to see the actor beneath the character as Quell is so unlike any character Phoenix has ever portrayed. The authenticity he brings to this role is stunning, and watching the subtle shifts in his character throughout the film had me absolutely captivated. Hoffman's Dodd is an almost polar opposite, charismatic, passionate, quick to anger, and utterly manipulative. Seeing the two interact is fascinating, funny, and even kind of creepy at times. Amy Adams also deserves a mention as Dodd's wife, whose cold, unwavering fervor I found supremely unsettling, but in the best way possible.

The gorgeous, stylistic cinematography just brings the whole package together, combining sharp camera work, exquisite lighting, and crisp colors to create a beautiful world of dreamlike qualities firmly grounded in reality. The choice to shoot the Master entirely on 65mm film stock was a bold one but one that provides an unmatched visual quality. I was particularly impressed by the lighting in the film which provided a marvelous play between warm illumination and impenetrable black shadows. I was hooked from the first shot to the last.

Though there is no question as to who the Master in the story is, the distinction is much less clear in the context of the film as a work of art. Anderson, Phoenix, and Hoffman are all masters of their own craft and seeing their fingerprints on this film makes it virtually impossible to discern who the true master is. The one thing that is certain is that when this many masters work together on one venture, the final product is sure to be a masterpiece.

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