Film Review: The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited follow-up to 2007’s critically-lauded ‘There Will Be Blood’, is finally here, and it’s special.  ‘The Master’ follows the story of Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, an ex-soldier who is everything but certified insane. After the end of the war, he’s lost, getting a series of mundane jobs in the new world, before stowing away on charismatic ‘The Cause’ leader Lancaster Dodd’s (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) boat.

The two performances given by Phoenix and Hoffman are outstanding to say the least. Phoenix is unnerving, a man on the edge that looks like he could explode at any minute, in anger, in happiness. He’s been suffering from post-traumatic stress since he was discharged from the army, and it really tells. Quell is an intriguing mixture of intensity, gruffness and vulnerability, a man who doesn’t know what his next move is going to be, where he will end up in 5 minutes, never mind 5 years time. Phoenix’s rough, weather beaten face is probably the most important story-telling device in the film. As Quell, his facial expressions, ticks and the way he speaks, with his down-turned mouth, is indicative of the man. He splutters out utterances that at first are hard to distinguish, but over the two and a half hours running time become easy to hear and process. Reports claimed that Phoenix really threw himself into the character, strutting around set as Quell, and the transformation he went through sees him become a thin, gangly man, who, in a couple of fight scenes, gets overpowered.

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be different, a man totally in control of his life, and the lives of many others, his followers in his cult, ‘The Cause’. He’s charismatic, confident and the life of a room, with an ability to make people laugh and listen to him, skills needed for his complex tasks at hand. When he takes on Freddie Quell, it’s incredible the power he has over him, almost like a dog on a leash, it could be argued Quell craves being looked after, being told what to do, despite his insistence that he doesn’t. However, there are hints that Dodd’s wife, played by Amy Adams, is the true ‘Master’, of the Master, confusing eh?! Adams turns in a solid, mature performance, as Dodd’s able adversary, and tends to be the driving force behind the man, maybe even THE man…

I think Phoenix may just edge Hoffman in terms of performance, as Phoenix is a man on the verge of insanity, which it could be argued Hoffman is too, but Phoenix’s subtle nuances, his twitches, the way he speaks had me in awe.

Lancaster Dodd’s way of thinking is VERY similar to Scientology, the ‘religion’ made famous by Hollywood mainstays Tom Cruise and John Travolta. He involves exercises where participants are transported back to their ‘past lives’ generations beforehand, talks of different vessels that a person’s soul passes onto in the event of death, it’s very clearly Anderson’s take on the cult, a fact hinted at in interviews. It’s a shame that this isn’t more of a clear biopic of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology founder, but more of a generic tale of a man and his own cult, although it is still interesting given that post-war, these types of cults popped up all over America, giving people something to put their trust in, after the devastation caused by war may have caused them to consider their religious beliefs.

The Master’ is a film for the senses. It’s beautiful to look at, with Anderson crafting together his film carefully and deliberately. Some shots look like a painting in motion, with the sea and desert-motorbike scenes particularly stunning. The attention to detail for the period is fantastic too, with Freddie’s job as a photographer in a department store looking straight out of the 40s. The soundtrack too, is stunning. A whir of noises, created by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, it matches the unnerving action stroke for stroke. It’s off-beat, out of time and often not there, Anderson instead choosing silence to compliment his scenes. When it’s there though it adds so much to the film, yet another component of such a layered piece.

It’s a strange piece of work though. When it ended, I was pleased. It’s 2 and a half hours, a long running time for any film, but with the way it plods every so slightly at times, and the storyline not being the greatest thing ever, it was an enjoyable time, but could’ve been livelier. It also could’ve ended at least 3/4 times before it actually did, with all endings being decent and similar to the end result. That being said, I have no problem with the ending, just that it could’ve come slightly earlier! It certainly makes you think at the conclusion, with it being such a wildly diverse film, it’s sexual, at times disturbing and an insight into how certain human beings work.

The Master’ is interesting. Not for everyone, that’s for sure, but one of 2012’s more interesting flicks, for the right audience.



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