Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
The Master is going to be a challenging film for most people. It’ll either be loved or hated, and either way it’ll be a conversation piece. That’s probably the greatest compliment that can be offered to this film. Rather than be mundane and safe and forgettable like most films from Hollywood it takes chances, it requires viewers to think and to actually have an opinion on what’s happening rather than having the story give you the proper opinion. In a typical Michael Bay film for example you don’t have to decide who’s good and who’s bad. The scenario is blatantly drawn and the protagonists and antagonists are without mystery. In this film very little is that cut and dry and for that reason alone The Master deserves our attention.
The film is set in post war 1950’s and it first settles on Freddy, and ex-Navy man who appears to have no direction and no civility for that matter. He’s dangerous in fact even if it’s unintentional. He finds that he has talent with photography but his short temper and lack of self-control destroy any opportunities he might have at making a life for himself in that endeavor. Prior to Freddy exiting the military therapists tried to help him deal with his mental issues with no success. He may have been made the man he is by the war but the character, the personality, and his way of dealing with his existence probably stems from his childhood. In this simple observation alone it feels like we are trying to psychoanalyze Freddy, and that’s probably what he needs. The funny thing is that Freddy may know deep down that he needs this sort of help too because the one man he finally connects with as a friend and mentor is a man that offers him a mix of pseudo-science and religion as an answer.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd a man who appears to be riffing on L. Ron Hubbard with his scientific processing, time travel hypnotic-regression, and simple moralistic view of religion. He’s charismatic and has developed a group of followers that believe in him “religiously”. Freddy doesn’t necessarily fit in, not even close, but Lancaster sees Freddy as a project and in some odd way a companion. Freddy never speaks the words but it appears that he’s hopeful that he can find himself and settle with these people and their religion. Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance of his career here as Freddy. This is a truly complex character played by Phoenix as a man in pain, a man plagued by loneliness, and a man so distraught and lacking in direction that he truly can’t see the problems he has and why he’s as sad as he is even when it’s laid out right before him. Hoffman brings us a man that at first seems all powerful but through subtle character moments and even facial expressions and body language the fact that there are cracks in his existence is apparent before the story ever chooses to reveal those cracks to us.
The Master is multilayered and offers the opportunity for many questions. The film isn’t about the connect the dots existence of cultism but the cult or “the cause” or even Scientology is the engine that propels these characters and defines the path for them. This leads to the question of faith. How important is it and what impact does it have on our lives? The movie is also about power, power over one’s self and our path in life and power over others. There are two characters in this film both seeking that power in both regards and by the end of the film you’ll be asking yourself and others around you just how successful the two men were. The Master is the perfect partner piece to Anderson’s previous film There Will Be Blood. Both films found the enormity of the world crushing down on complex and ultimately human characters and the decisions they make to try and survive. This is not a cotton candy movie that will send you out of the theater smiling and confident you know everything. This is a steak of a movie with many seasonings and spices that takes savoring to fully digest. It’s challenging, complex, moving, and expertly executed on virtually every level. Even Laura Dern’s small role is a joy in this film. Amy Adams has truly shown herself as someone with true acting chops in her role as Lancaster’s wife and biggest follower. The only real complaint I have about the film is that it might be a little long. I say might because in reality the plotting and emotional build requires the length. It may seem long to some because the film is so mentally and emotionally trying.
The Master is real filmmaking, it’s not crowd pandering or selling to the lowest common denominator for a quick buck. Everyone involved in the film gave everything they had to render a story with more depth and meaning and impact than any other film made domestically this year. Also this film is like no other film out there, save for There Will Be Blood which is kind of OK since it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie too.