“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmmaking career has been built from a yearning to innovate and astonish and though his profound cinematic presentations of life are some of the film industry’s finest, it’s his flawless consistency that’s truly remarkable. His success with such a unique style and ability to surpass even his own high expectations has warranted recognition as a modern day auteur. Five years on from There Will Be Blood, the great director returns with his most unique venture, but like all of his perfectionist creations, The Master is psychologically absorbing, yet strikingly cinematic and emotionally engaging.
Anderson’s narrative is tremendous in scope and the story, in a broad sense, follows Freddie Quell, a disillusioned drifter who has no purpose in life and finds sanctuary in the company of The Cause, a cult-like group lead by a charismatic intellectual Lancaster Dodd.
The narrative is non-linear in style and plays out as a stream of consciousness that meanders through the two central characters’ lives and their peculiar, ambiguous relationship. By ignoring the structure of a traditional film script Anderson perfectly echoes the emotional state of the main character. A gorgeously captured image of the wake of a slow-moving ship recurs throughout and positions the audience alongside Freddie Quell as we drift through the narrative with no sense of drive or purpose.
The dysfunctional setting, robust subject matter and unorthodox narrative style are typical of Anderson and a tough watch, but one that leaves an indelible mark. It’s certainly his least accessible film, but that’s the intention. Like many of his films, but to a much larger degree, this isn’t a film to escape to or draw an audience in, but one that asks them to observe its intricacies and experience its emotions.
The Master is engrossing, orchestrated expertly by its writer/director and supplemented by two astonishing central performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Following fantastic appearances in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in his fifth collaboration with Anderson and delivers his finest performance yet as the central character in this thought-provoking indictment of cult fanaticism. Benefiting from having the most detailed character of the film, Hoffman plays the charismatic cult leader with subtle simplicity, allowing his character’s complexities to almost naturally filter through Anderson’s typically biting dialogue.
Renowned for being an actor’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson puts his expertly crafted characters and perfectly chosen actors at the forefront of his films and even those he’s working with for the first time find plentiful reward from his influence. Joaquin Phoenix matches Hoffman with a career best performance as the tortured soul, desperately in need of guidance and companionship. Phoenix writhes in the uncomfortable skin of Freddie Quell manifesting his inner turmoil and endless fights with anger and sexual urges as outward projections through a gaunt physique and haunted expression.
Despite the dominant performances from the two leading men the most affecting performance comes from Amy Adams. As Peggy Dodd, Lancaster Dodd’s wife, she is omnipresent and ready to leap to her husband’s defence whenever necessary. Where Phoenix and Hoffman (in his frequent outbursts) are grandiose and boisterous Adams is restrained and subtle, but equally imposing. She plays perfectly against the two commanding leads with a complex and multifaceted performance. Adams is a revelation and the underrated star of this entire project.
For The Master Anderson departs from his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, who he has collaborated with on each of his previous films and will be returning to for his next film Inherent Vice, in favour of Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. The differences are immediately noticeable in Anderson’s most cinematically refined film yet. Sweeping camera moves, lightning-fast cuts and even slow, meticulous tracking shots are gone in favour of a pragmatic shooting style made of formal framing techniques, naturalistic lighting and relatively static shots. A realistic aesthetic, and style, matches the slow-burning nature of the narrative, but also expertly evokes the character’s emotional turmoil.
The Master is another polarising film from Paul Thomas Anderson that quells any thoughts of his mainstream tendencies and therefore may leave some unsatisfied with its slowness, ambiguity and originality. It’s an audacious, incomparable character study that reflects the confidence, diversity and expertise of a director in his prime. Though not his finest film, it’s a truly unique experience that lingers long after the credits roll and one you’ll be craving to revisit in order to indulge in its hidden complexities.