The Master Review: The film of 2012 and P.T Anderson’s next exhibit on providing what the best American cinema can be.
It has been five years since the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; a film about oil and a man named Daniel Plainview, played with towering menace and conviction by Daniel Day Lewis. The film is sometimes (often) considered as the “best” American film of the first decade of this century and with that consensus, I tend to agree. It is a lucid, mesmerising work where its own bravura almost limits itself, defying anything that came out of Hollywood that year despite being firmly set in a pre-1950’s type film identity. It was both modern and historic, an era-abolishing instant classic. And yet, not all viewers take this stance. When it comes to unique artists, film lovers are unsurprisingly often polarized. Although most critics are merely casual about their dislike, as Anderson’s resume is able to please almost everyone at one point or another given the fact that his skill as a film-maker cannot be ignored. Skill and a technique not born from lessons or assessments (like his good friend Quentin Tarantino, he never attended a film school), but passion and determination to not modestly emulate his idols, but take it further and expand on the ideas and visual qualities from the likes of Scorsese, Altman, Kubrick and Welles – all of whom Anderson cites as inspiration.
Though his style felt more Altman and Scorsese for the earlier films (particularly Boogie Nights and Magnolia), it is with Welles and Kubrick he seems to be developing more of an affinity with his last two films. What he is doing now is far more reminiscent of them than anyone else, and to call those directors brilliant and unique is an understatement. In some movie watcher’s eyes, he is merely technically proficient; finding his stories and characters unlikable, deficient and meanderingly incomplete. If the 42 year old filmmaker is only resorting to a simpler, more traditionally gratifying approach to film then so be it, but there is a transparent etiquette to what all the (unique) greats do that PTA seems to take on as well and was last seen with this kind of intensity, in my opinion, when Stanley Kubrick was alive. If one word describes both There Will be Blood, and now The Master, that word is intensity.
So what is it all about? It’s a definite companion piece to TWBB on many levels; the style, score, edit and the even the central relationships being similar. Elements from Punch Drunk Love also feel like they exist here. One of the first things I did notice not long after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is introduced (about thirty minutes in), was how much people, before the release of the movie, seemed to simply stir the pot claiming Andersons’ story was some kind of fictional dig at the beginnings of celeb cult, The Church of Scientology. One of the film’s elements is about a man and his brood as they travel state to state demonstrating his past life, time travel and quasi-religious philosophical tosh, but this is almost secondary to the relationship between Dodd and our central character, troubled World War II veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Are there L. Ron Hubbard similarities in Dodd? Possibly, but I’m not familiar enough with the author to cast any sort of real comparison or judgement. Personally, I think one thing has nothing to do with the other and the director’s influence for his subject matter go beyond such a thing. Lancaster’s, ‘The Cause’, is by definition a cult and is the basis for the course of the story, but Freddie’s admiration of Dodd, and in turn Dodd’s fascination with Freddie, eventually become the focus, especially from when we witness a tone changing scene of “processing” as Dodd puts our post-traumatic stress sufferer through an emotional wringer of questioning. This is all after we have trailed Freddie at the start of the film through parts of his bizarre time in the Navy, various jobs, courting women and a lethal moonshine brewing habit. Freddie is the focus of The Master, not ‘The Cause’.
As self-described “hopelessly inquisitive men”, their relationship runs a gambit of emotion as the passionate Dodd collides with the sexually deviant, disturbed Quell. Serving up frustration, confusion, laughter, violence and anger, the film is anchored by both actors, but it is Joaquin Phoenix that mesmerises the most. Bringing to life a character suffering from acute mental illness alongside emotional frustration of epic proportions is not an easy task to do convincingly, but he does and this is all without taking into account the physical aspects Phoenix achieved for the role also. By losing significant weight, hunching into a permanent gait, mumbling his speech and incorporating virtual facial contortions, this is the actor like we’ve never seen him. Comparisons can only exist with the truly great of performances from the past, ironically, his main competition at a chance to win the Oscar is someone who was clearly a major influence on him and arguably the greatest working actor today; Daniel Day-Lewis. Previous Oscar winner Hoffman has been a stellar performer all his career; as great as one could be of his generation, here he establishes a role with such conviction, he will be linked by it for a long time. A subtle performance in many ways, to call his casting of Dodd perfect would seem like an understatement. The only other character with any real influence besides them is Dodd’s wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams. Peggy is a guarded role with her number of lines small, but her presence immense. Adams completes the trifecta and slinks into the discerning (or deluded?) woman that is Peggy Dodd brilliantly. As the film continues, and in particular with some of the final scenes, her impact upsurges and leaves you with questions about who really is the true believer in ‘The Cause’.
For all the positive talk I am providing, it almost goes without saying that The Master is clearly not a film for everyone and some mainstream audiences would no doubt become bored, confused or even offended by most of it. Difficult is an apt description and certainly it is not a warm film, but to say it is then cold is not true either. Humour populates the film sporadically which is often genuinely funny, and I was moved by Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship by the end. The struggles of Freddie mirrored by the need of Dodd to help, to pierce his psyche, to me, lead to a distinct adoration between them by the time the film ended. A lot of critics could not be moved and relate to it as nothing more than a “bromance”. This is fine if you don’t wish to delve deeper emotionally (which I believe the film does allow, contrary to some beliefs), but I recoil from the term used here. In essence that is comparing The Master to films such as slacker comedy I Love You, Man or worse still, to lump it in with a trend of Hollywood that almost seems to have passed over already. The Master, like There Will Be Blood should and will be regarded as a timeless classic, a film worthy of reference as much as any of the great dramas and studies of mental illness from decades before. It is a study on both levels of film-making so one could almost wonder, is the film title simply Anderson referencing himself? Personally, I don’t mind some arrogance or egotism creeping into art as humbling and impressive as this.
What do you think? Leave a comment.