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 411mania » Movies » Film Reviews

The Master Review
Posted by Chad Webb on 09.28.2012

Joaquin Phoenix: Freddie Quell
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Lancaster Dodd
Amy Adams: Peggy Dodd
Laura Dern: Helen Sullivan
Ambyr Childers: Elizabeth Dodd
Jesse Plemons: Val Dodd
Rami Malek: Clark
Patty McCormack: Mildred Drummond
Written and Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release Date: September 14, 2012
Running Time: 137 minutes


Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Though most critics might not admit it, some films do leave them stumped; whether it is on how to rate it or how to express their opinions in words. Certain titles just require a bit more digestion, percolating, or soaking it all in. There are a small number of directors who inspire this sort of reaction; those who deliver a product that transcends what an ordinary review can articulate. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of them and his newest motion picture, The Master, falls into this category. Eventually the writer will put down words on a page, but on occasion we ask ourselves, "Does this article suit the film I just saw?" In my travels and conversations I have met many moviegoers who are not sure what judgment to award a film when they do not fully grasp every detail and nuance that was thrown at their senses. This is understandable. After The Master was over, I knew I had seen greatness even if I did not absorb all of its complexities, but finding the proper phrase to convey that proved more challenging.

Rumors surrounding The Master sprouted early on during its development. Did Anderson put L. Ron Hubbard and the origin of Scientology in his sights? Was this to be a direct origin story about the celebrity popular religion or was his scope and canvas larger? In retrospect, it was foolish for anyone to think Anderson was staging an attack on Hubbard or his creation. This filmmaker is too smart for that, regardless of his personal beliefs. Undoubtedly one can see Scientology and its founder as an inspiration for the screenplay having heard or come across the whispers and gossip, but this is a fully realized effort with its own identity. Every single frame is given such determined, attentive care and esteem. Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. capture startlingly beautiful images: scenes that exude a different aura and texture than comparable directors. The characters are wholly fleshed out and wonderfully complex individuals, while the themes and ideas are grandiose, thought-provoking, and maddeningly enigmatic.

Among the first shots has Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in the heat of battle during World War II, trying to stay alive. But when the war ends, the horrors of it have not escaped Mr. Quell. It is the late 1940's/early 50's and the troops have come home. Freddie however cannot overcome his experience or his nature, which derive from not only being a Naval veteran but the result of an alcoholic mother and a father who died in an asylum. He is lost in post-war America, obviously a tormented chap who has post-traumatic stress disorder. This is evident when an incident takes place at a job he lands after returning from overseas, as a photographer in a department store. He is fired after assaulting one customer amidst a drunken dispute. The drink also gets Freddie into trouble at his next job. He mixes his own "poison," which does just that to an elderly co-worker since it was made with a few unsafe ingredients, particularly paint thinner. His concoction ends up helping him one night when he stumbles onto a yacht party thrown by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who loves Quell’s beverage. Freddie is even invited to the wedding of Dodd's daughter (Ambyr Childers) and soon becomes embedded in his loyal group of followers. As he rises in the ranks and becomes Dodd's right-hand man for his philosophical movement known as The Cause, the various methods of psychology Dodd uses do not seem to "cure" Freddie. When Freddie is not saved or tamed, those in Dodd's inner circle, notably his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), raise the question of if he should be cast out as a detriment and liability to their progress.

Joaquin Phoenix took a huge risk with his mockumentary project I'm Still Here, an underappreciated slice of brilliance, but thankfully he did not burn all of his bridges. A world without any more of his dedicated performances would have been tragic, and Freddie Quell is one of his very best. Few actors possess the focus and steadfastness that Phoenix exhibits with every role. It's a special breed. He is heartbreakingly powerful as Quell, a man adrift and without bearings, yet he is never too showy. A weaker talent would have gone over the top, but Phoenix's doggedness never falters and his passion never wanes. Quell is an unbalanced person, a fact which is displayed in many sequences; the grinding on a sand mound of a naked woman is a prime example. The raw emotion and timing of this instability is what makes Phoenix such a magnetic presence. Mentally his preparation for parts has never been in question, but as Freddie, Phoenix unveils a total transformation. His physical appearance is eye-catching, sporting the slicked back hair of a classic 50's movie star, but carrying himself with stooped shoulders, a gaunt body, a lingering grin, and extremely poor posture. The entire cast is praiseworthy, but Phoenix stands tallest. If he wanted to make a statement with his first official role since 2008's fabulous Two Lovers, he definitely did.

Phoenix prepared for the Walk the Line biopic of Johnny Cash for years. At one point, many assumed he was destined for an Oscar. How ironic that he spars with the very man who beat him out for that prize in Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like Phoenix, Hoffman is a joy to behold in every turn and he has been so consistently marvelous for years now that we have grown to anticipate paramount acting each time out of the gate. Lancaster Dodd is another in a long string of sensational portrayals. Hoffman's abilities shift our perspective of Dodd throughout the tale, gliding back and forth from an intelligent, multi-talented pseudo-psychologist to a sly swindler. Is he genuine with his tactics to help Freddie, or are these fancy parlor tricks that Houdini would have spotted? The dynamic between Freddie and Lancaster is integral to The Master. Observing these two sharing the same screen is nothing short of extraordinary. They attain a vehemence and energy that all stars should aspire to reach. Phoenix shines with a rough-hewn commitment to Freddie, while Hoffman is more cleanly composed and streamlined. These two similar, yet divergent, slants on their craft co-mingle to form a searing chemistry.

In Trouble with the Curve and now The Master, Amy Adams has finally begun shedding the bubbly, happy-go-lucky persona she seems to regularly get stuck in. As Peggy Dodd, she confirms that her versatility and range is much broader than one's first impression. Her depiction of Lancaster's secret puppeteer is quiet, reserved, and periodically chilling. She is not just the loving and obedient wife. There is an unsettling undercurrent to Peggy that is hard to gauge. Adams showcases a level of intensity as Peggy that she had not let loose previously. Her comments are sharp and persuasive. Watching her masturbate Lancaster is quite disturbing. When PTA's There Will Be Blood hit theaters, one of the arguments was that Daniel Day-Lewis was so good that Paul Dano suffered as a result. I disagree with this assessment and I have heard matching comments for The Master as well, speaking of how the supporting players measure up to Phoenix and Hoffman. Yes, they are in their own class, but everyone is magnificent despite the overwhelming strength of the leads. Laura Dern is fantastic as Lancaster's bright devotee Helen Sullivan. One of my favorite sequences has Helen calling out Dodd on an inconsistency/contradictory statement he made in his new book, thus subtly exposing the truth behind the comment from his son Val, "He's making this up as he goes along, you don't see that?" Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) is Val, a superb rising star who made such an impact on the fifth season of Breaking Bad. Ambyr Childers and Rami Malek are additionally terrific as newlyweds Elizabeth and Clark.

Like There Will Be Blood, The Master explores the narcissism and egoism of one man, in this case Lancaster Dodd. Unlike Daniel Plainview, Paul Thomas Anderson is more concerned with Dodd's demented attitude towards faith and religion, rather than a fanatical drive for wealth, power, or ambition. Anderson's customary theme of fractured familial relationships, specifically a father-son bond, is covered, yet still fresh and exhilarating. Freddie is an ideal candidate for The Cause, someone who is practically begging for a guide to heal his wounds and Lancaster sees an alluring test in defeating Freddie's inner turmoil. The Cause's alleged "aid" for Freddie becomes mean-spirited and borderline creepy though. One exercise forces Freddie to walk from one side of a room to the other repeatedly with his eyes closed. The intention is to wash his brain so he can feel for a new soul, but all it accomplishes is aggravation. As if it was up for debate prior to The Master's release, Paul Thomas Anderson is communicating a distaste for cults and perhaps religion overall one could contend. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the message was that cults and their shady leaders are more damaging than beneficial. In The Master, I sensed that Anderson is saying people are simply better off without them, seeking peace somewhere else. But this is not a thriller like Martha Marcy May Marlene, an adventure akin to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or horror such as Rosemary's Baby. As a clear drama, it is increasingly profound, contemplative, and poignant. The acolytes in The Master are not Satan-worshipers, a Thuggee gang who honors Kali, or backwater trash creating a world apart from everyone else. They are smart, strategic people who conceal their exploitative tendencies under a facade of friendship, haughty aptitude, and sympathy.

Anderson's camera acumen, combined with the production design of Jack Fisk & David Crank, the set decoration of Amy Wells, and the costume design of Mark Bridges mold this glimpse into American during the middle of the 20th century with painstaking, immersive detail. The majority of The Master was filmed using 65mm cameras that lend a distinctiveness and authenticity to the material. All of this splendid work from the crew is supplemented by the edgy, strident, and lasting score from Jonny Greenwood, whose compositions line-up so harmoniously and complimentary with the director's plan. Anderson also never hesitates to continue with a particular shot longer than normal directors. But the momentum never stumbles in any of the electric verbal jousts, the reticent exchanges, or the sequences packing bursts of action such as Lancaster and Freddie's motorcycle ride in the desert. The pacing is deliberate, but not sluggish, and Anderson achieves both an epic quality and one of claustrophobia at the same time, which is just remarkable. He is hastily compared to single directors like Malick or Kubrick or even Abel Gance I would attest, but the glory of Anderson is that he channels numerous filmmakers in etching out his own trademarks, outlooks, and objectives.

A film such as The Master is not the easiest to spread the word about because, let's face it, the style of Paul Thomas Anderson is not for everyone. Audiences are used to the all intricacies and elements of a plot explained directly to them to avoid any confusion or ambiguity whatsoever. Anderson does not subscribe to this mindset. He is not afraid to be vague or explicit if need be. In the case of Freddie Quell, fantasy and reality meld together and it is not always effortless to spot these instances. This is the spectacular obstacle The Master sets in front of us. If Anderson fails to spell out a certain point, rest assured it will be shown silently in some respect. The complaint has been raised to me that it would be hard to recommend this to casual moviegoing friends or family members. This could be true to a degree, but if the job of a critic were as easy as telling someone to see or not see a film and they respond accordingly, everyone would do it. There are times when we see films that we might enjoy that others just do not. Maybe we see facets other viewers do not or vice versa. That is one of challenges of the assignment. Even though my rating will reflect that I feel The Master is one of the finest films of 2012, it will not be hailed as a cinematic masterpiece in all circles. It is mysterious and mesmerizing, a study of masculinity, the hunt for answers and closure. This is about the synergy or lack thereof between characters, their interactions and confrontations instead of conventional development or period history. It demands more from us than mere surface entertainment. The Master will not be completely penetrated in one sitting, its layers will be uncovered over time, but its majesty exists even if we cannot positively explain why.

The 411: After a summer of comic book heroics and non-stop action, Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a much-needed weighty drama as we approach winter. The Master is a sensational film and I have no problem waiting another 5 years for the director’s next effort if that's what it takes. If they’re always as good as this, I can be patient. The Master is packed with top-notch work from the cast and crew, diligent efforts that will surely be recognized this awards season. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s 1st film (hopefully of many) with Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 5th. Both give mind-blowing performances in a cast where no one misses a beat. The Master might not be the simplest film to wrap your head around, but that’s part of its greatness. It should be in more theaters now, and could be expanding more, but do yourself a favor and see it. If my reasoning isn’t sufficient, go just to hear Hoffman utter what is sure to be a classic line, “Pig Fuc*!”
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  10.0   [ Virtually Perfect ]  legend


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