Release Date: September 21st, 2012 (US); November 16th, 2012 (UK)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
From the inquisitive mind of Paul Thomas Anderson comes The Master, a beautifully shot depiction of the relationship between two external polar opposites — a worn-out, angry war veteran and an intellectual, charismatic cult leader — along with the gradual realisation that both men are internally very similar. Paul Thomas Anderson truly has a gift for filmmaking, for creating worlds that engulf audiences and for establishing characters who seem increasingly real and infuriatingly flawed-yet-admirable — even at the occasional expense of sense and structure. In The Master, Anderson has just that again as, although confused at times, the film is encapsulating and driven by three uniquely masterful performances.
The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell, a former Navy officer and current alcoholic and sex addict, who is unable to find his place in the post-war society. After struggling through a number of jobs, none of which he is able to adjust and settle in to, Quell wakes up one morning on a boat guided by Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic individual who is the leader of a philosophical entity known as “The Cause”. Enticed by the opportunity and awe-struck by Dodd’s uncanny allure and knowledge, Quell embarks on a journey of rediscovery and recovery, all the while Dodd’s beckoning light begins to flicker.
At one point, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd says, “For without [scepticism] we’d be positives and no negatives, therefore zero charge.” Fittingly, this is not only the case for Dodd and his cleansing techniques, but it is also true in terms of The Master as a whole. There are moments of doubt in regard to where Anderson is attempting to direct proceedings and the film does take its time to get itself together, but without these uncertainties the likes of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams would have a lot less to sink their teeth into. The film is a look into acceptance and readjustment; a commentary on belief and the power of cult-dynamic; a take on the societal and personal issues of consumerism and sex appeal which have existed in different forms for decades. Somehow all of these elements must find a way to jostle into position at the forefront of what is going on, and there are occasions where goings-on become slightly over-run and confused as a result. However, these aforementioned issues are necessary as they each act as a vehicle for the various characters to develop alongside.
The Master kicks-off in a somewhat obscure manner as Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is in the process of acclimatising to life after the war. The pace of the film is very slow in these opening minutes and it is not until Quell meets Dodd that the film really gets into its stride. The first ‘processing’ scene — where Dodd subjects a restless Quell to uncomfortable and hard-hitting personal questions — is utterly scintillating. The unassuming poise Hoffman portrays against Phoenix’s eagerness is encapsulating and sets the tone for much of what is come between the pair. This scene is just about the first time the two have appeared opposite each other on screen, and it has a hint of a De Niro-Pacino Heat-esque feel to it. As the film progresses, an edgy atmosphere develops and events always seem to be on the cusp: either of violence, or laughter, or anger. This atmosphere is aided by an extrinsic stillness projected from the camera, and lingering shots that, if left a second or two longer, would probably see things kick-off — this is certainly the case on one occasion.
The Master, if nothing else, boasts performances worthy of its title. Paul Thomas Anderson always seems to grind out the absolute best from his actors and this is once again the case here. Joaquin Phoenix is uncomfortable to watch for much of the film, which is exactly how his addiction-fuelled, uncompromising war veteran should be seen. From the outset, almost everything about Freddie Quell is undesirable, such as his excessive consumption of alcohol or his noticeably hunched-back, which is in dire need of straightening (much like his head). The genius in Phoenix’s portrayal is that he deceitfully and gradually positions Quell as man who draws much sympathy from the audience, even whilst retaining these unwanted traits.
Of course, in Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, Phoenix has two wonderfully gifted actors to interact with. Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd seemingly has the answer to all of Quell’s problems and comes across as a hypnotic saviour. The two share a father-son dynamic as Phoenix’s character spends most of his time spellbound by the unmistakable intellect emitted by Hoffman’s Dodd, whose genuineness is always in question. Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, and her nonchalant, suppressed attitude is both endearing and eerie — particularly in comparison to her husband’s grandiose demeanour. The supporting cast made up of Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek and Jesse Plemons amongst others are all equally accommodating, but it is the three mentioned in detail who shine. It is no surprise that Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams were each nominated for Academy Awards for their respective roles — the only surprise is The Master left the 2013 ceremony empty handed.
A challenging enactment of a broken man trying to readjust to post-war surroundings, The Master is another Paul Thomas Anderson success story. Nourished by extensively well-written characters performed emphatically and accompanied by mesmerising cinematography, The Master is just one additional degree of clarity away from masterful.