The Master

The Master ★★★★½

It’s rare for me to see a film again right away after first seeing it. In fact, this didn’t even do that; after first seeing The Master, I was just left feeling very uneasy about what I had just seen. I had enjoyed it, but I wasn’t entirely sure how much or why. When I thought about it a bit and then saw it for a second time however, it all made sense. Meditative about its themes, PTA’s The Master does not lead to an overarching epiphany but demands persistent investigation throughout and long afterward to determine what it has to say about religion and mankind’s omnipresent need to fill the emptiness of belief. What we have here is three central characters, all of whom are fairly unredeeming and unforgivable, and none of whom particularly progress in anyway in the film. It is a film about frustration of the highest order, and that includes us as viewers at times, one might often left feeling ‘why do I care about any of these people? why do I find them so compelling?’ A lot of that is down to PTA’s wonderful direction, there are many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments where a brief movement or piece of dialogue tells so much with so little, and the fact that all three of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Amy Adams are utterly brilliant. The dynamics between them are compelling enough (more on that later) let alone for the equally great but occasionally marginalised supporting cast, many of whom are reduced to only a couple lines.

The Master is actually a movie about two men who couldn’t be more different, and yet are almost exactly the same. Even as it attempts ephemeral whatdoesitallmean-ness, The Master can be broken down to one simple sentence: a beautiful, tragic friendship between someone who has no interest in answers and a man who knows he has none of them. Personally, I think The Master is all about finding meaning and PTA aids us in our search by making every beat seem significant. He likes to let the camera linger on his characters for a few moments longer than is comfortable, forcing us to peel back another layer into their psyche. PTA feeds us substantial scenes showing the Cause's central practice: lengthy sessions called "processing" in which the same questions are asked over and over until they no longer elicit emotional reactions, and memories are deliberated until they no longer have power. We see the lure of the Cause -- the expiation of emotions that comes with profuse confessions, the community of belonging, the yearning to be, finally, unencumbered. The movie's two leads -- Hoffman, especially, and Phoenix, whose face is etched with Quell's pain -- are perfectly modulated, as is the strong supporting cast, and the direction stays controlled even as the film explodes. The Master studies its characters with such mystique, tragedy and humor that there’s not a moment that isn’t enthralling. Even the stillness feels absorbing.

All in all, The Master is masterful, indeed. What's it like to be a lost soul who finds someone who says you can be saved, only to discover that he may not hold the answer, after all (and maybe never did) -- and that even if he did, you don't have the blind faith, for better or worse, to believe that he can? It's these wrenching depths that the film plumbs, and we're left bereft, befuddled, and, like Quell, enraged. What to do? Who to become? It's precisely because you will leave the film with weighty, even troubling questions like these makes The Master a must-see. It's truly a remarkable film, and one that is worth revisiting many times. The visuals, the characters and the story will reward multiple viewings. What I’m curious about is what else the film holds, thematically deep inside of itself. Again and again PTA films prove to be layered experiences for me, slowly revealing themselves with time. I know that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of The Master. Highly Recommended!

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