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The Master

September 28, 2012

If you ever want to have a good conversation with someone, then take them to see The Master. It’s the type of film that will likely result in standing around a movie theater lobby discussing ideas and theories of what took place. It invites you on a slow cruise around bends and through forks in the path before coming up to an even slower stop in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to recollect how or why you got there, but depending on your personal taste, you won’t really care because it was such a beautiful and interesting voyage.

The Master starts by introducing audiences to the post WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable sex addict filled with rage and booze. Freddie’s drunkenness isn’t your standard 1950s drunk however, his is more of a caveman discovering fermentation kind of inebriation. Yet despite his oddity in society, Freddie’s a genius at making his own personal concoctions complete with acetic acid, paint thinner, and any other chemicals he can get his hands on. At first we follow Freddie’s dismissal from the Navy due to his lewd and unstable behavior and a slight breakdown he has after receiving a letter from a girl back home. After next being ran out of a cabbage work farm, a down and out Freddie stumbles onto a ship and falls into the care of Lancaster Dodd, an author and philosopher whose studies include introducing his patients to their past lives in order to fix their emotional problems in the present. Lancaster and his reluctant wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), take Freddie under their wing hoping to fix him, but Freddie’s erratic behavior proves to be too much and a struggle for metaphysical power takes place.

There are many elements of The Master that are just breathtaking and beyond impressive. For starters, director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to shoot the film in 70mm, a decision that makes for astounding shots reflecting the loneliness and solitude of Freddie’s existence. Long shots are filled with vast amounts of land, making characters seem minuscule and insignificant in their surroundings. The cinematography is beautiful and the clean, sterile look of the 1950’s is punctuated by high-key lighting and authentic costume design. Personally, 50’s fashion is a guilty pleasure of mine. Although it was detrimental to personal creativity, I adore the vibrant colors and tailored look of suits and the way women’s dresses hugged their torsos before flowing out to reveal nicely sculpted, slender legs. All of that is captured seemingly perfectly in The Master, most specifically in scenes featuring a department store in which Freddie becomes a photographer for. In one scene, Freddie takes a montage of photos back to back and the realism within the shot, from the lighting to the makeup is sublimely surreal.

Now, one can’t discuss The Master without talking about the incredible talent of everyone involved, but of course the always phenomenal Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix steal the show. The story of The Master leaves much to be desired, but merely watching Phoenix embody Freddie along with his interaction with Hoffman is just astounding. Phoenix becomes Freddie, with a gaunt, slim face and eyes accentuated by puffy bags, a perfect look for a drunk whose only mode of sleep comes from being passed out. Phoenix speaks with slurred, gruff words and his thin face always possesses a slight snarl while his frail frame has the posture of a man who feels constant physical pain. There’s no doubt that Phoenix will receive a number of nominations when award season rolls around, and his chances for winning Best Actor is extremely high thanks to such a stellar magnetizing performance. Hoffman brings his A-game as well as the dramatic, quirky and poignant leader of “The Cause.” Comparable to Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard, Hoffman’s Lancaster is passionate and protective of his studies and beliefs, having every reason to be thanks to his legion of followers, mostly upper class older women who believe he has the answers to unlocking life’s most unknown secrets. In typical Hoffman fashion, his character is charmingly intense being able to straddle the line of congenial, trust worthy father figure and also maniacal angry beast ready to pounce when prodded.

Despite the indisputable greatness of the mentioned elements, at the end of the day, The Master is your average Paul Thomas Anderson film, which can be taken with a grain of salt. If you let some people tell it, Anderson is one of the greatest filmmakers of contemporary cinema, however, that’s all a matter of opinion of course. While Anderson’s talent is undeniable, his storytelling methods leave much to be desired as his movies are usually long, drawn out and often nonsensical. Of the four PTA films I’ve seen, Boogie Nights is his greatest work and one of the best films in cinematic history. However, I loathed There Will Be Blood upon first watch and thought Magnolia was tritely passable although it has fantastic moments.

The major problem with The Master is that Anderson invites viewers to sit through a slow paced, at times tedious, melodrama of two men while never giving us an understanding of character motivations or reasoning. We spend a decent amount of time focused on Peggy, but never truly know her place or point in the story. We follow Lancaster’s struggles and growth with Freddie but never know what comes of it. There is no good or bad guy, at least Anderson’s delivery of the story doesn’t allow audiences to think so, and therefore you inevitably end up watching a group of people interact with no result or catharsis by the end. Perhaps this is what Anderson intended and depending on your expectations or personal taste, it’s an acceptable thing to do.

Regardless, his creation of atmosphere makes this movie a must see at least one. While the story is fair to say the least, Anderson’s direction is impeccable, the editing is astounding, Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack is great and the performances are stuff of legends— even if Hoffman’s unwarranted singing at the end is creepy and baffling. The Master is the type of film that after standing in silence for a minute or so at its end, you just may loudly question, “what the hell just happened?”

SEE IT. Anderson’s direction and Phoenix’s performance are a must see.

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