The Master Movie Review

[The Master
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hofman, and Amy Adams
MPAA: R – For Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language] 
Belief is one of the primary components that shape who we are as individuals. Belief extends to our knowledge, our political stances, and our views on the very nature of existence (a.k.a. religion). And all of these beliefs eventually lead us to create our ideals: The concepts we strive to achieve, the ideas we push ourselves to act upon. But ideals are very fragile things. When you can’t reach them, for any reason, you realize that aspiring to a singular one is nigh impossible, and it can change our beliefs, and in turn, who we are as individuals. 
 
And never before have I seen the struggle of belief and ideals as richly portrayed as I have in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, a cinematic tour de force that challenges you in ways movies this day and age rarely do. Food for thought is too subordinate a phrase to describe this movie. This is a film so rich with compelling themes and enigmas that a single viewing isn’t enough to take in all that the movie has to offer. Sadly, however, a single viewing is all I have time for, so this review will be a challenge. But hey, it’s always nice to have a challenge, unless it involves sharks.
 
The Master follows a World War II navy veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in his first role after going faux-psycho both in real life and the mock-doc I’m Still Here) who suffers from a psychosis so severe it’s implied that it goes way beyond mere PTSD, and implying that it perhaps originated long before the war had even begun. Fueled by copious amounts of alchohol and a raging libido, Freddie is completely unable to assimilate into a post-war society as he gets into drunken fights with customers. When he ends up accidentally killing a man simply with his powerful moonshines (The secret ingredient of which is paint thinner), he takes refuge on a boat commandeered by a Lancaster Dodd. 
 
Lancaster, referred to as “Master” by his followers, is the leader of a cult named The Cause, which claims to be able to bring its subjects happiness by using hypnotherapy to allow them to see into their “past lives”, which can date trillions of years back. Dodd states that going back through your soul’s timeline brings humans back to their “state of perfect”. When he meets Freddie Quell, he’s at first merely charmed by his childish attitude and his peculiar moonshine recipe, but soon the severely damaged vet starts to inspire him to write more and he ends up taking him under his wing. Quell becomes Lancaster’s new protege, and a relationship that tests each of their beliefs ensues.
 
First and foremost, let me address something before I actually talk about the film’s numerous merits: There’s been plenty of pre-release hubbub surrounding the subject matter of the film. Namely, comparisons were drawn–before the film was out, no less–between the fictional cult the film depicts and the real cult of Scientology, leading many to believe that the film would be a searing indictment of the strange religion. Just to put this assumption to rest, I’ll put it simply and briefly: The film is not about Scientology. Okay, it’s fairly obvious that The Cause is inspired by Scientology, but the movie is not an exposé on it or anything. It’s simply a character study, and a fantastic one at that.
 
I’ve already heard numerous people detract the film for its simplistic narrative. But that’s kind of like knocking down The 400 Blows for having a simple narrative, because that’s not what either movie is concerned with. What The Master is concerned with is how beliefs of different sorts end up eating away at these men’s souls until their inner natures are revealed. 
 
Unless you’re either parodying religion or you’re truly and sincerely faith-driven, it’s always hard to make a film about any sort of religion and make it even-handed. And while The Master is far from even-handed, it still does something not a lot of movies do: It sees how this particular movement could appeal to its main character without resorting to mocking him, all while still observing the flaws that eventually tear him away from it. 
 
Because of this, The Master ends up becoming more than just a movie about religion and becomes one about the very nature of faith and belief. How far will we go to protect what we believe in, even though we can see the cracks and imperfections that keep it from being a true ideal? Will we lie to ourselves in order to keep the illusion intact, or will we learn to move ahead and find a more concrete truth? There are a million ways to interpret The Master. I personally saw it as a film about your ideals, and the pain of realizing that they are just that: Ideals. Just because you do your best to reach them, doesn’t mean you can ever achieve them. In fact, you most likely never will. And that realization can change the very foundation of what defines who you are.
 
However, it’s been very interesting  to read up on other people’s viewings of the film. I’ve seen many critics interpret the film in wild yet surprisingly plausible ways. While the most popular belief is that it’s a movie about religion and belief systems, some have said it’s a metaphor for post-WWII American society, and I’ve seen quite a few who have called the film a closeted, homoerotic love story. All of these theories are entirely believable because The Master is just teeming with so many ideas. Ironically, by being about something extremely specific, it becomes a movie about everything. 
 
But it is exactly this density and ambiguity that has made many viewers emotionally distant to the film, including Roger Ebert. And I can see that being a problem for many viewers who aren’t willing to be challenged this much. An emotionally involving film requires it to have a theme or character to latch onto, but because the movie is so coy with what it is about and who these people were before the events of the film, and so desperate for you to figure out your own solution (Hell, there may not even be a real solution), it could alienate many viewers.
 
However, I personally found the film emotionally involving enough for two reasons. First, Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, as meticulous as it is, is so beautiful and even sympathetic to these damaged men, even though it doesn’t reveal too much about them. Secondly, every single performance is sheer perfection.
 
 
While talking about Oscar-buzz at this time is a bit early (and a little annoying in some respects), there’s no doubt in my mind that Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman will be the front-runners of the Academy’s acting race. The most showy role, of course, is the insane, alchoholic Phoenix, whose performance is very much a transformation not just in terms of his voice and mannerisms, but also with his physicality. 
 
Throughout the whole film, Phoenix’s posture is hunched, his face crooked, and his speech perpetually slurred, to the point that it becomes less of a performance and more of a transformation. While it’s definitely as, if not more showy than Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, it’s different in this regard: In There Will Be Blood, as good as he was, you can kinda tell when Day-Lewis was clearly “acting”, especially in the over-the-top ending; while in The Master, there’s never a moment where Joaquin Phoenix isn’t Freddie Quell. 
 
Not only does he expertly execute the age-old technique of being able to convey hundreds of emotions just with subtle movements on his face, even his voice displays a pain and a derangement that feels one-of-a-kind. His performance is so vital to the film’s success, I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like without Phoenix. (Jeremy Renner was rumored to have the part of Freddie before Joaquin got it). It’s a perfect performance that is showy in that traditional Oscar sense, but is also so painfully nuanced that Phoenix’s smile ends up inciting unbelievable amounts of sheer terror in the viewer. It’s that good.
 
So you’d imagine that Phillip Seymour Hoffman would have to up his game since he’s opposite Freddie almost the entire time. Thankfully, it never really feels like Hoffman is ever straining with too much effort to equal Phoenix. His performance is actually incredibly different from Phoenix’s. He’s brazenly confident and charismatic enough to be believable as the leader of a cult, mysterious enough to give him a mythic stature, and he straddles that line between niceness and sternness that a leader like him must have to be plausible. Hoffman isn’t even attempting to equal Phoenix. If anything, he’s just naturally equal to him in talent.
 
The two play off each other excellently. Any time just the two of them are face-to-face, you’re held witness to the best acting you’ll see in all of 2012 so far. I’ve stated in my Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective that one of the director’s favorite themes is father figures and the dynamics they have with their sons (Or daughters, in the case of Magnolia). And what better father-son dynamic for a Paul Thomas Anderson film than the relationship between Leader and Follower. 
 
There’s such an intensity between the two as they’re pulled back and forth from sympathy to rivalry. Like most of the film, their relationship is just as ambiguous as it is incredibly well-drawn. Does Lancaster Dodd keep Freddie around because he truly admires his faith, does he simply just admire his insanity and primal nature, or is he just in love with the “idea” of an unflinching follower as Freddie proves himself to be the most gulligble, prime example of the term? Meanwhile, does Freddie truly believe in Lancaster’s philosophy, does he just want to belong in a community that will always accept his insanity, or is he just in love with the “idea” of a leader who can guide him through life?
 
They’re not the only heavy-hitters in the cast, however. Amy Adams is actually surprisingly excellent as Lancaster’s wife Peggy, a role which is unlike anything else the actress has ever done. Here, she is anything but cute and quirky. In fact, she is so headstrong you can argue that she’s the real driving force behind The Cause (One scene involving a handjob seems to imply so). Also, Laura Dern shows up as one of The Cause’s main members, and her very few scenes are a nice reminder of why she’s one of the best underrated actresses working today. Oh, and Jesse Plemons is in it as Lancaster’s son! He…doesn’t have much to do. But hey, he’s Todd in Breaking Bad, so all you Heisenberg fans can point at the screen and go “Hey! It’s that guy!” whenever he’s on.
 
Of course, you can’t talk about a P.T. Anderson film mentioning Anderson’s direction. Each film of his has always felt like an “evolution” or “progression” from the previous film, and this time is no different. The Master evokes both the sparse, ambiguous, epic storytelling of There Will Be Blood and the audiovisual, character-centric filmmaking of Punch-Drunk Love. This results in what is Anderson’s most mature picture out of all his filmography. 
 
Much like There Will Be Blood, the film has an epic, sprawling feel to it despite the fact that it’s entirely dialogue driven and takes place mostly indoors (Even more so than Blood). This is because Anderson puts a real emphasis on the rivalry/friendship between Dodd and Quell, giving it a gravitas that feels like it has just as much stakes as a Lord of the Rings battle. 
 
This can also be attributed to his use of 65mm film, which has been given a lot of talk in the industry since it’s the first film to use it since Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of Hamlet. For those of you who don’t know, 65mm is a certain film-stock used mostly to convey epic scenes with large environments. The Master, interestingly enough, actually uses it for the exact opposite effect, as I’ve stated before the use of small spaces. It gives the close-ups an alarmingly unnerving quality, the wide-shots an astounding beauty (especially whenever the ocean is displayed), and allows Anderson to puncture in as many fine details as he wants (And this being an Anderson film, there are hundreds of small details to seek). 
 
But as I’ve stated before, Anderson’s approach is incredibly meticulous, which may be too cold and distant for many viewers. The point of the end isn’t any sort of emotional catharsis, but rather a clue that urges the viewer to think harder about what they think the movie is truly about. And all those meticulous details do allow for all sorts of wild interpretations. Whereas my other best movie of the year contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was a full-on heart-movie fueled by emotion, The Master is a head-movie that requires patience and challenges your intellect. But in that way, it’s still emotionally satisfying in its own unique manner. 
 
Final Verdict: The Master is a challenge of a film, but one that still satisfies like all puzzles do. And even if you’re not into solving it, there’s no denying the artistry and craftsmanship in Anderson’s direction, or power of the awe-inspiring performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seyour Hoffman, and Amy Adams–three of the best performances you’ll see all year. Not just one of the best films of the year, but a film that will most definitely be discussed and analyzed years and years from now.
 
 
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
 
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make sand-babies…you’ll get that reference once you’ve seen the film. Bye!
 
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