Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and now The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson is yet to make a bad film. OK, I haven't seen Hard Eight, but I'm willing to bet it's a respectable directorial debut. The Master is arguably his most challenging film to date. It is not a film that is made to appease the masses and rake in the big bucks. It is the type of film a director crafts from his or her passion, and handles with the utmost care and affection. What I'm saying is that a film like The Master is not easy to make. It not only requires great technical knowledge, but also a heap of emotional maturity, and at age 42, many would argue that Anderson is a precocious talent. Some would dismiss this as "peaking too early," but there's nothing to suggest Anderson can't keep this up.
The Master traces the life of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in a post-World War II America. Freddie is a naval veteran from the war, and is burdened with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and an insatiable appetite for sex. He struggles to adjust to post-war life, but finds comfort in Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of 'The Cause'—a cult-like philosophical movement. Adherents of 'The Cause' spread their teachings across the East Coast of the United States, but tensions rise when Lancaster's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), grows dissatisfied with Freddie's erratic behaviour. This puts the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster on shaky ground, and prompts a lot of introspection from Freddie.
Several parallels have been drawn between The Cause and Scientology, including Hoffman's physical resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard and the various methods of pseudoscience that are employed. Personally, I don't give much credence to this analogy, but even if I did, that would not be my primary focus. I think The Master is about the frailty of the post-war mind and the fusion of paranoia and optimism that permeated the United States in the 1950s. The focus should not be on The Cause, but rather on its effects (pardon the pun).
This film has so many strengths that I could not possibly list them all. The most essential element of the film is the performance from Phoenix. Here is an actor whose personal life has come under much scrutiny in recent years, and you get the sense he used Freddie as a channel for catharsis. Phoenix's performance calls to mind that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson's There Will Be Blood, or Tim Robbins' in Mystic River. Freddie is a man who so desperately needs something to cling to, and he gambles on The Cause because it provides him with purpose, something that came inherently during his days of naval service. In some ways, his dilemma is similar to that of Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. Both characters are forced to live in environments that do not complement their instincts, and both are looking for a cure. Unsurprisingly, Hoffman is magnificent as Lancaster Dodd, always filling the frame with a formidable screen presence. He has now been in all of Anderson's films except for There Will Be Blood, so it is no wonder that Anderson can draw a great performance from him, not that he would need much prompting. The Master is majestically shot in 65mm film—the first fictional film to be shot this way since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996. Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s cinematography is captivating, and every frame is crafted with immense care. Jonny Greenwood's score captures the underlying unease amongst members of The Cause and the wider community.
While The Master is a very good film, it didn't completely satisfy me. It is an emotionally-charged film, and throughout the final act, I was preparing for a climactic scene that would allow Freddie, as well as myself, to find some peace. I thought it ended abruptly, and as a result, it left a strange taste in my mouth. I liked what I had just seen, but I felt as though the final payoff could have been more spectacular, considering the intensity of the emotions that came before it. Alas, the merit of a film's ending is often very subjective. Some people like abrupt endings, and some may even think The Master does not end abruptly. This is a personal grievance, and it shouldn't stop you from going to see the film. It's been said that this is one of the hardest films of the year to sit through. There are a few moments of stagnation and the 2+ hour running time may turn some people off. I was able to forgive the slower scenes, for what they lack in fluidity, they make up for with intriguing dialogue and a visually-compelling frame. 'The Cause' is just as alien to viewers as it is to the townsfolk in the movie, so we are practically forced to pay attention at all times. We're not only watching for entertainment. We're watching to learn. If we don't know what The Cause is about, there's no way for us to empathise with Freddie.
If I haven't made it clear already, this film is challenging and far from light, breezy viewing. Not everyone will enjoy it, and even more people will be unable to relate to it. That said, if you're a sentient human being, this film will make you feel something. The feeling may be unidentifiable, but it's there. It is a human film, about human wants, human needs and the innate human curiosity. I'm not sure what Paul Thomas Anderson has in store for us next, but based on what he's gifted us so far, I am very excited about it.