The Master

The Master ★★★★½

One could decipher layered themes of religion and companionship within the rambling flow of the narrative, but Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master excels on such a simple dramatic level that it actually makes those complexities inviting and not alienating. In spite of the long-winded scenes showing the inner workings of "The Cause", the focal point is really on the relationship between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, both of whom have their own motives while also looking up to a higher power. These two have such interesting interactions with each other that even though both end up where they started by the film's end, you feel like they went through a journey that at least changed their outlook on the world.

As with a lot of PTA's films, this not only works as an intimate drama, but also as a firm, purposeful stance on the themes it contains. The aforementioned religious elements function as a catalyst for characters to achieve their best state of mind, which forces them to do whatever they can to accomplish their goals (rituals, interrogations, etc.). These motives are prominent enough that it balances out what is otherwise a story with no clear-cut moments of progression. In addition, the cult in which Dodd leads conveys a sense of strong companionship that helps keep their goals in priority, and this also adds to how our main characters work off each other.

Having scenes go by without strong emphasis on any of them would normally weaken emotional moments, but the rambling nature fits perfectly with the equally rambling Quell that it works in its favor. Throughout the film, he is unsure if being in "The Cause" is going to change him, at one point shouting to Dodd that the entire cult is possibly a big lie. So it makes sense that little to no moments are emphasized as huge revelations. There are a few moments where this kind of progression backfires, but for the most part, it firmly plants the audience into the Quell's mind.

This film is quite strong as is with just the storytelling, but it proves to be expertly crafted in just about all aspects as well. The cinematography has a crisp, clean look that makes it feel like things are unfolding in the moment, and the score similarly has a spontaneous quality to it, only popping up when necessary. The editing feels like a character in its own right, with some scenes having few cuts to show the range of feelings characters go through (the initial interrogation between Quell and Dodd being a personal highlight). And the trifecta of performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams is simply too good for words.

I originally intended to see this before PTA's followup, Inherent Vice, but given my mixed reaction to that, I think I made a good choice in watching this after. The Master is just wonderful, plain and simple, with few caveats in sight. It takes the daunting task of being both simplistic and complex without either one taking over. As I said with PTA's Boogie Nights, I'm not ready to call it a masterpiece, but I can say that it's damn great regardless.

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