The Master

The Master ★★★★

Included In Lists:
Portraits and Landscapes: Ranking Paul Thomas Anderson
Strong Performances - Philip Seymour Hoffman

Review In A Nutshell:

If one were to ask me some of the examples of the most exquisitely beautiful film to have come out since the turn of the century, there would be no hesitation to say that The Master would be near the top of that list; Paul Thomas Anderson has found himself experimenting with an undervalued cinematic form, crafting such immaculate detail and texture even in the most mundane or traditional of shots. The film is a character-driven drama, and though it is also a period piece, it never becomes the clothing or atmosphere that fills the world of its characters, its focus is on the performances from his actors, the souls that are drawn to the surface for audience to bask their eyes in, finding beauty in its collection of tight close-ups. Though this is not to say that Anderson isn’t making the most out of his format, as the film still retains moments of grandeur and expansive scope, through scenes that display a wonderful and poetic backdrop that amplifies its natural beauty. I was swept away with each passing frame, and even up to now in my second viewing, there are still much of its imagery I have yet to absorb; the film’s beautiful images would forever be the film’s redeeming quality, with every frame deserving of a place in a museum’s most prestigious art gallery.

As for the narrative itself, the film begins during the late 40s, with the war coming to a close and soldiers are sent back to their native land to become regular contributors to society, but the transition is difficult as the trauma and isolation of war has left a psychological mark on many of its soldiers; blood has been splattered, and conditions have been hostile, the idea of a quiet and regular American life is a daunting one, unsure whether they would find their place in an evolved and unchaotic world. The film’s subject, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), his trauma has been carried into his new life manifested through alcoholism, sexual desperation, social isolation, and radical behaviour. He is a man who is dominated by his immediate emotions, one that stands out in this composed and firmly structured society; although his emotions get the best of him, there isn’t a lack of attempt to find his place in this unfamiliar world, he is willing to attend to his post as a cameraman or a agriculture harvester to pay his dues and ensure stability, but mistakes are made and emotions constantly run high which outside elements forces him to leave. Freddie has become a wanderer; he lacks the direction or guidance to show him his true path, until he stumbles upon a man.

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman); he is a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all he is just a man. Lancaster is the leader, or “master”, of an organisation that attempts to draw out the untapped memories from ourselves that allows us to travel to vessels of our past in which we experience thought-provoking emotions and conditions that would firmly allow humanity to come into grips of their spirits. The idea is to have a sense of control over ourselves, understanding that what we are living in is just a vessel that keeps us locked in due to our commanding emotions, it tries to make humans be aware of the dangers of being under the grip of our emotions and that our being is far too superior to be dominated. Of course, all of this is based on subjective, qualitative data that finds difficulty in achieving immediate conversion of the public, there are those who challenges Lancaster in his views, and through those moments we see Dodd for what he internally is; a person like us, who is under the influence of his own ego, but unlike many there is a sense of control in him that allows his emotions to remain collected, which does allow him to be seen as a superior being than his followers. The film does not takes sides with its subject matter, it merely walks the neutral line and shows him and his “cult” at their most superior and vulnerable moments, ergo realism has become an influence in the camera’s perception on its subjects, allowing only specific moments for the audiences to step into the surreal conditions of its characters, notably Freddie’s initial processing.

Lancaster and Freddie’s relationship is one that exhibits genuineness and growth, their relationship seems to draw out something from one another, but its execution isn’t handled as flourish as I would have hoped. Their lives coming together is supposedly meant to demonstrate a sense of change in the characters, which we do gain but it all comes off as far too one-sided; it is understood that Freddie is the most sympathetic due to his damaged nature that is in desperate need of existential and philosophical guidance in order to substitute his destructive nature for one that demonstrates control and positivity, and though the film dabbles on that for the bulk of their early relationship, it becomes less so by the time it reaches its final act. It has been suggested throughout that Lancaster has genuine and friendly affection for Freddie, and that his presence is personally therapeutic, but it never gives the audience a clear view on how their relationship has provided him with a sense of growth; I understand that his ego would be rewarded if he is able to tame and cure him from his disease, but that drive for elevation of their organisation’s reputation is found instead with his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), which the film also does not provide enough moments for growth. The film would have benefited if it contained more scenes that explore their relationship, and allowing development to be found simultaneously between one another.

I don’t mind unredemptive and ambiguous conclusions for its characters, as it does allow for audience to engage in deep thought, potentially creating their own theories on where these characters would be, what their journey truly meant, and whether there is anything significant to take from all this; but the film felt too restrained to provide any sort of clue to what this entire journey has meant to them. It is understood that Lancaster and Freddie have parted ways due to the latter’s uncontrollable nature, but it needs to push a previously established idea that would provide a satisfactory conclusion for these characters, even if the idea is given to us in its concrete form, there must be food for thought. The film ended, leaving me with nothing to ask because I don’t know which angle to approach. There is a possibility that I may have missed an essential piece, and maybe another viewing would help, but for now I cannot help but feel a bit frustrated.

One of Anderson’s preceding film, There Will Be Blood, strengths was the musical score that was provided by Jonny Greenwood; it was the start of a beautiful partnership that would surely enrich the quality of Anderson’s films. Like There Will Be Blood, this film is a character-driven story that is primarily concerned with their personal growth rather than mechanics of the plot itself; Greenwood’s score provides a musical companionship that elevates the majestic visuals, providing greater emphasis to its subjects and allows audiences to be deeply immersed. The score certainly lacks the identifiable attitude that made There Will Be Blood such a tremendous film, but he has provided enough to ensure a unique for his audience.

As for the performances themselves, Philip Seymour Hoffman was spectacular as Lancaster Dodd, a man who attempts to maintain his own emotional demons but sometimes become overwhelmed by the accusers that pressures him into reaching boiling point. His role is far less showy than Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, but he provides enough silent intensity in his performance that sometimes are eyes become transfixed on him, despite the camera’s adoration for Phoenix’s outbursts. Joaquin no doubt has proven himself with this film, and after that stint he pulled off in Casey Affleck’s documentary, I’m Still Here, there was no better way to jump start acting career than to be in a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and like much of his work; three of its key performances have been nominated at the Academy Awards. It proves once again that Anderson understands his actors and actresses, knowing exactly what he wants from them and does so through bringing out the best of their abilities. It is always nice to see Amy Adams to be nominated for an Academy Award, but I felt The Master has restricted her sense of presence which affected her opportunity to leave a significant mark on my mind, as stated previously, her character needed far more opportunities to grow as a well-rounded character; I felt we were only left with a single shading of who she truly is.

Despite the flaws that I have addressed in this review, I felt that the film was able to provide enough positive qualities that allows it to be redeemed; the photography is enough for this need to be an essential viewing, and maybe along the way one would find more than what they were expecting, a deep and thought-provoking character study. Paul Thomas Anderson has provided us with a rewarding experience.

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