Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master'

By Michael Murphy,
Joaquin Phoenix and co-stars amaze in P.T. Anderson's stellar new drama, 'The Master'

“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man…just like you.”

The Master is the boldly immersive story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally disturbed and emotionally unstable WWII veteran, who wanders through his post-war months helplessly lost: He has no family to return to and a young woman that he has left hopefully awaiting his improbable return. His broken psyche has become easily influenced, so much that he finds salvation in two very dangerous parasites. First, alcohol, mainly through a single, jumbled concoction of his own creation, and second, the manipulative words of cultish "master," Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has pioneered a new religious practice entitled The Cause. As a collective, The Cause, which encompasses Dodd’s own wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd’s children, and a plethora of devout followers, attempt to remedy Freddie of his psychological trauma by ushering him into their fellowship as a guinea pig of sorts who undergoes a number of tests and "processes" that Dodd uses as data research to further cement his movement’s beliefs. As Freddie is harnessed by The Cause’s frightening practices, we witness the full development of the relationship between Quell and Dodd, between student and preacher, as a representation for the foundation of religion and how it can be grounded in something as simple as verbal manipulation and a charismatic presence. At the same time, we are welcomed by a breathtakingly powerful overall film from Paul Thomas Anderson reaching superb levels within all the various realms and factions of filmmaking.

From the premise alone one could see how The Master would be a hard pill to swallow. Its meandering pace, unnerving tone, and broad narrative may be off-putting for some (these are common P.T.A. characteristics and they have not always sat right with me), but whether you are drawn in by visuals or characters, The Master is exemplary in both fields. Regarding myself, I am a sucker for the latter and yet I found myself absolutely wowed by the visual beauty and crisp imagery (thanks to a non-digital format) as well as the astonishing performances by the film’s three leads: Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams. Adams, though limited in forefront screen time, draws influence from Angela Lansbury’s timeless role as the definitive behind-the-scene mother in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate as the master’s wife, Peggy. She is granted a great deal of time in the background, but absolutely commands the viewer’s attention when she emerges to center frame. It’s a memorable supporting role that solidifies her as the perennial best supporting actress; a nomination is definitely expected.

As for Hoffman and Phoenix, they turn in two of the finest performances I have seen in awhile, Phoenix especially. While Hoffman’s level of grandeur is expected, Phoenix, who has not been in a movie since 2008’s Two Lovers (excluding his faux documentary), returns from his acting hiatus with arguably the best performance of his career. I will be absolutely bewildered if Meryl Streep does not present Joaquin Phoenix with a Best Actor Oscar this coming March because his performance is real, tortured, inspired, masterful…there are not enough positive adjectives in the dictionary to describe Phoenix’s turn as Freddie Quell. Last year I said Drive was the best film to hit theaters since The Wrestler, this year Joaquin Phoenix gives the best leading performance since Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson, again writing and directing his own original work, has absolutely outdone himself with The Master, which is his first feature film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Having experimented extensively as both a writer and director throughout his career, The Master is the first time that the filmmaker has found a complete balance between the two technical positions. With Boogie Nights, Anderson crafted a beautifully stimulating character epic with an expansive ensemble cast that thrived on top-notch writing; with There Will Be Blood, Anderson chose to let the camera speak for him focusing on a powerful man in an endless landscape channeling David Lean to present his greed-driven narrative. The Master is a professionally executed piece of film with characters that are dripping with rich multidimensionality and captured with the brilliance comparable to the finest craftsmen in the history of filmmaking. The Master could have been shot in black and white and released in the 1950s or 1960s and felt right at home. From Jonny Greenwood’s haunting and pulsating score to the pitch perfect art direction and vibrant period costuming, Anderson’s film resonates for the entirety of its 137-minute runtime. It wasn’t until this film that I could proclaim Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the most mature and phenomenal contemporary directors of motion pictures.

While high advocates of religion may find the film unfriendly and the connections to the controversial practice of Scientology are unavoidable, this film speaks to all of the beliefs connected to the only religion I practice feverishly: The religion of film. The trifecta of stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams elevate Anderson’s material to an immeasurable caliber of excellence, placing this film on a very, very high pedestal that will prove challenging for upcoming films to reach. With a stacked lineup of fall and winter films on the horizon, all of them will be faced with harsh competition from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which already features my choices for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture for 2012. With career-best work both in front and behind the camera, The Master is a massive triumph and the closest to mastery that Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten thus far.

10/10

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