Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader. (source)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a truly maddening, mesmerizing and powerful film about the two things that drive our lives: faith and freedom. In true form, it’s not the type of film that can be easily digested after just one viewing, but one that enigmatically challenges us to break through to it’s seemingly impenetrable core, all while forcing us to reinterpret the world we inhabit. With The Master, Anderson’s struck a raw nerve, proving himself a skillful storyteller whose saying something that truly matters. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are a trinity of perfection, each playing off certain aspects of their established personas only to subvert them into something more terrifying. From top to bottom, this is art at it’s most personal, vulnerable, naked and piercing.
Set sometime just after WW2, the story focuses on a shell shocked, sex-obsessed and hopelessly drunk Navy vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). After his failed attempts to reintegrate and relate with post-war society, he stows aboard the Alethia, a boat owned by the mysterious Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Much to Freddie’s surprise, Dodd (also referred to as “Master”), a self described writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher with an army of followers and family members whose intentions remain oblique, welcomes Freddie with open arms. From there, what seems initially like a master/protege relationship, pointedly and insidiously evolves into something more complex, exposing the frailty and strength of our flawed human nature. It should also be noted that while many of the film’s subjects bare a resemblance to Scientology, I really think that Anderson is trying to go further than that, using it only as a starting point to get at something much more deeper and hidden from plain sight.
In essence, Anderson has crafted an emotionally raw film about the effects of faith in our lives and it’s inextricable ties to our intellectual freedom. What is freedom anyway? Are we truly free? Can we live life without serving some sort of master? Should we? Conversely, the film also delves into our need to control, save or even nurture, and deep within the story’s character study of two endlessly inquisitive men trying to find their way, are the differences and most importantly similarities between them which inevitably examine our own deep-seated necessity for some sort of faith, be it in our friends, family, a mentor or higher power. The film eloquently and poetically challenges our preconceptions of these themes, showing us how they have the ability to calm the storm while simultaneously, and perhaps unwittingly rip apart the seams which hold us together. Shot in stunning 65mm by Mihai Malaimare Jr, Anderson uses the medium’s clarity to crystalize his ideas almost exclusively through his character’s reactions via extreme close ups or long, uninterrupted takes that cleverly prove that sometimes the action isn’t as important as the reaction. It’s by focusing on the intimacy of the human mind that the story gains it’s breathtakingly massive scope. Throw in some nonchalant dream sequences, a layered, unmistakably melancholy string score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and you’ve got an unrivaled cinematic experience that is as stunning as it is poignantly affecting.
As the film is a character affair, Anderson’s trinity of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams deliver fire with fierce fervor. Phoenix in particular is in a transformative role that takes over every fiber of his being, from his character’s crippled and bent posture, to his carefree gaze and demeanor. Since most of the film is built around him and his inability to be honest with himself (among other things), his search for peace with Hoffman’s enigmatic Master renders him a combustible ball of mixed emotions. Together with Hoffman, the two are a force of nature, delivering scenes which feel too real and vulnerable to be fake. As the Master, Hoffman is the pillar of strength that’s made up of an unmistakably stoic resolve and charismatic appeal that no man can turn away from. I don’t want to spoil anything but about midway through the film, his character does take a turn that is pretty mind-blowing and again, handled again with a vulnerability and heavy-hearted sense of misguided responsibility that is so well done and completely relatable. All this leads to Amy Adams’ almost shocking and creepy performance yet as the Master’s wife, Peggy Dodd. Adams’ character is exactly what we’d expect of her at first, sweet, meek, humble and charitable, until we really get to know her. It’s a performance that will no doubt turn heads and coerce us to notice and applaud her undeniable talent.
It’s worth noting that The Master is the type of film that evoked a strongly personal and reaction with me as a viewer, and I’ve intentionally tried my best to stay as vague as possible due to the film’s puzzle-like nature. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s truly crafted a film that slowly evolves and unfolds deliberately, forcing you to re-examine it anew, every time you think you’ve figured it out, so I want everyone who sees it to be able to carry on their own unique rapport with it. In all honesty, I can’t really recall any other films of late that attack this kind of subject matter so profoundly, and thats makes The Master special and unique, as speaks to us on a fundamental level and proves that films can still have plenty to say.
Crome Rating: 4.5/5