Review: The Master

 

Of all the voyages and odysseys that man has embarked upon, from the discovery of the Americas to landing on the moon, one journey has remained a constant for every human since the beginning of recorded time: the process of self-discovery. When taken in comparison, man’s external travails are far less complex and significant than navigating the hazardous waters of one’s own psychological ocean. Indeed, the search for the meaning and purpose in one’s life has always been a subjective quest, and has thus provided for such a ripe thematic focus in most art forms, especially cinema. Granted, when exploring such a provocative topic, it may be easy to fall into the trap of pretension, but if investigated with a distinct purpose in mind, the possibilities remain open for true revelations to be found. In the case of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film in five years, two men are adrift in their respective lives, one publicly, and the other privately, yet both are looking for purpose. What happens when their orbits collide serves as the conflict for the unorthodox narrative Anderson concocts, which probes, amuses, and baffles almost in equal measure.

The Master begins immediately following the second World War, a tumultuous time ripe with uncertainty. The Americans most at odds with their futures were the newly minted veterans, who had just endured the horrors of the greatest conflict in the history of mankind. Although some would eventually find their niche in society, others, like the film’s protagonist, Freddie Quell, would drift from one vocation to another, without any goals or aspirations in mind. From the outset, Anderson makes it abundantly clear that Quell’s condition is of an highly disturbed individual. As played with unsettling ferocity by Joaquin Phoenix, one bears witness to a true nutcase, who may frankly be past any kind of outside aid. Governed by the vices of sex and alcohol, Freddie is a true powder keg whose insecurities prevent him from maintaining a steady job. When he randomly stows away on to a private yacht after another night of heavy drinking, he crosses paths with a man named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose public persona is “Master.” This mastery of which Dodd proclaims is of a new line of religious thinking, known as “The Cause,” which involves intense, personal interview sessions, in which subjects ostensibly recall their previous lives in order to alleviate current psychological traumas. Hoffman is operating here with a charisma to the nth degree, creating a presence of Wellesian stature, in which each and every word plays like music to the ears of his congregation. His most devoted follower is his own wife, played with deadly serious conviction by Amy Adams, who feels omnipresent in every scene, even if she isn’t the primary point of focus. Of course, there are those on the outside of “The Cause” that clearly see it as a bunch of ballyhoo, including Dodd’s own son, and those who directly oppose him are then greeted with surprising verbal violence. As Freddie becomes increasingly enamored with “The Cause,” he becomes highly defensive of Dodd, and “Master” reciprocates this sentiment, resulting in an ongoing dance between both men in a symbiotic relationship.

As it has been from the beginnings of his career in cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson has shown nothing less than a complete understanding of all of the technical components in service to his narrative. In contrast to his earlier films, The Master is closer in line with Anderson’s more restrained visual sensibilities established from There Will Be Blood.  This restraint should not be mistaken for lack of bravura, however. With striking exterior compositions, and observational, non obtrusive long takes, The Master is not without its standout visual moments. As lensed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. in 65 mm, the scope of the film exceeds even those California explorations in Anderson’s previous efforts. The large format is quite fitting, as the film travels from the oceans of the Pacific, to the streets of London and the suburbs of Philadelphia. Jack Fisk’s art direction is quite stately, and the costumes and makeup, especially for those of the protagonists are lovingly appropriate. The other standout aspect of Anderson’s opus is the unconventional score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose emphasis on off beat percussion and seething strings emphasizes the tensions simmering just underneath the surface.

Upon first viewing, it is impossible to completely digest The Master, whose ambitions are as great and broad as the canvas upon which Dodd draws. Parallels can certainly be drawn to There Will Be Blood, whose meditations on the obsessions of religion can find its roots in this film. However, this film feels less of a condemnation than its predecessor, whose outcome found the absolute corruption of a preacher equal to that of its power hungry oil man. Rather, The Master takes a much more admiring stance towards “The Cause,” which has drawn many comparisons to Scientology. The film does not make an all out endorsement, but nevertheless sympathizes with those vulnerable figures who are caught up within its outrageous claims, including “Master” himself. Anderson refuses to structure his film in tidy fashion, and even the film’s climax is highly subdued, without a definitive resolution. This may frustrate some viewers, but on the contrary, it allows for more open interpretation, which is what all great art should aspire to. Whether The Master will reveal a greater hidden treasure chest of discoveries is yet to be determined, but it nonetheless stands as another unique, unyielding vision from Paul Thomas Anderson.

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~ by romancinema on September 23, 2012.

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