Review - The Master


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  • Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
  • The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson returns with some masterful performances
The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman
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A former soldier attempting to return to normalcy after World War II comes into contact with the charismatic leader of a new religion who attempts to cure the wayward soul.

From his early beginnings in with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights to the critically acclaimed, Oscar winning There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has had a major impact on modern cinema – despite completing just five features.

His sixth is The Master, long in production and originally set up with Jeremy Renner and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles, with the former part later going to Joaquin Phoenix, thankfully back from his ridiculous hiatus as a faux rapper.

The film is an intense portrayal of a damaged man named Freddie Quell (Phoenix), plagued by alcoholism and an obsession with sex which is diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rather than treatment, the US army throw him back out into the world, where violent altercations and a habit of poisoning people with his home brewed liquor lead him to stow away on the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).

Dodd is the leader of a spiritual group called The Cause, which posits the supernatural state of humanity – travelling through many vessels across time and with the ability to access past lives through a form of hypnosis. Convinced of the power of his altruism, Dodd takes on Quell as a living project, as a way to prove that his mixture of science and spirituality can cure even a person as emotionally and mentally scarred as this.

Quell and Dodd are apparent opposites – the one’s animalistic tendencies and appetites juxtaposed with a belief in order and a higher path. But Dodd not so secretly longs for the chaos which Quell brings, for the near alchemical power of his potions and raw reactions to the smallest slight. It’s here that the true power structures within The Cause start to be revealed, with Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) forcing out any elements which might distract her husband from his destiny.

The Master is, unsurprisingly, a complex film but also one which is essentially unreliable. With Quell as our guide through the narrative and a number of instances where imaginings intrude on apparent reality, it can be hard to tell where the truth really begins. Which of course is the point.

As Quell, Phoenix commands the film in a way which I simply can’t imagine Renner doing. He takes the character off the page with the kind of committed physicality that we rarely see on screen – a hunched back, twitch ridden stance with features which slope off to one side. And he really runs with the more over the top elements of the character, taking and giving real hits in the numerous punch ups and beating himself up for his art. It’s raw and coarse and absolutely captivating.

Hoffman eats up much of the remaining screen time and arguably has the harder job, required to invest Dodd with some level of humanity and extreme charisma while also passing off his hokum in a way that’s both realistic and clearly contrived. He does a marvellous job with relatively little grandstanding, mixing in touches of carefully self deprecating humour and a force of will which makes it all too clear why he has attracted so many acolytes. Adams makes her presence felt despite little screen time, appearing at the edge of the frame and exerting her will when required.

Technically speaking, The Master is a smaller film than you might expect. Despite talking up the fact that the film was shot on 70mm, you won’t find much in the way of epic vistas with scenes mostly taking place indoors. The period detail is fine but again quite curtailed, there are no wide establishing shots for the 1950s, helping to keep the budget down but robbing us of much in the way of context.

As a fan of Anderson, my personal opinion is that he peaked with Magnolia in 2000, earning some comedy kudos with Punch-Drunk Love and getting a little too caught up in the opaque nature of There Will be Blood. The Master is on similar footing, rarely committing to any obvious revelations and lingering on shots and scenes to keep things at a deliberate pace. After the first two hours, it all starts to feel overly heavy and impenetrable, on the level of some of Kubrick’s less enjoyable efforts.

On one reading, this is a film about a character who cannot be tamed and about a supposed demi-god whose powers of processing and reprogramming utterly fail to save Quell from his raving nature. It’s that failure which is most telling, as The Cause comes up against something more real than polite women in middle class parlours and can’t find an adequate response.

At its best, The Master presents fierce scenes of emotional and intellectual battle, as Dodd tries to break down the perceived illness in Quell’s heart and mind. And these scenes are truly memorable, mixed in with a keen look at the contrived hokum of the cult. But the pacing of the film and its nebulous nature will also frustrate some viewers as the end approaches with little in the way of answers.

8 Stars: Recommended
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