Review: The Master

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by:Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons
Released: November 8, 2012
Grade: A-

The Master
The Master marks the sixth film of the brilliant writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) and it is perhaps his most inaccessible to the wider public.  Anderson himself has said that “there’s not a lot of plot but hopefully we make up for it with an abundance of character.” 

I can’t believe I’m making this comparison but Anderson’s approach reminds me of the Big Brother television series.  There’s no strict narrative.  Rather, we simply watch the characters go about their day-to-day lives.  That’s not to say that it’s boring.  It’s just that our focus is different.  Instead of wondering what’s going to happen next in the story… our focus is on the characters and trying to understand who they are and what they’re thinking.

Part of my fascination with The Master is that it centres on such an aimless character.  Set in the early 1950s, Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a solider who served in World War II and is struggling to assimilate back into society.  He has no friends, he can’t hold down a job and he has no interest in being social.  The only two things on his mind would appear to be sex and alcohol.

Roaming the streets late one night, he sees a lively party being held on a moored yacht.  He sneaks onboard and meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a published author and leader of a small philosophical movement.  The centre point of Dodd’s teachings is a technique known as “processing”.  He will ask someone a series of questions and then use the information to reveal details about their prior lives.

Dodd senses that Freddie has “wandered from the proper path” and takes him under his wing.  There’s an intense moment early in the film where Freddie submits himself to “processing” and Dodd tries to unlock his past.  It’s the first chapter in an ongoing battle between these two.

There are scenes that show us the bizarre nature of mind controlling cults.  There are scenes that highlight the difficulty of a solider coming back from war.  As I’ve alluded to above, that’s not what the film is really about though.  At its heart, The Master is a two hour journey that explores the relationship between Freddie and Dodd.

Why is the directionless Freddie allowing himself to be subjected to Dodd’s manipulative teachings?  Is it because he’s in search of a father figure?  It is because he’s mentally unstable?  Why does Dodd keep Freddie around, despite the misgivings of his wife (Adams) and close friends?  Does he see him as the ultimate challenge?  Does he enjoy the sense of the control?  These are questions you will ask yourself as opposed to the traditional “how will this story end?”

The Master is the first major film to be shot using 65mm film since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet back in 1996.  It involved using cameras that were decades old and with the support of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr (Youth Without Youth), Anderson has created a beautiful looking film that comes with a 1950s feel.  Jonny Greenwood’s moody, uneasy score further enhances the experience.

Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) and long-time Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) have been touted as Oscar contenders for good reason.  The film draws much strength from the exceptional performances of both Phoenix and Hoffman and the riveting interplay between their characters.

You could argue there a few unnecessary scenes during the final 45 minutes but The Master is still an engrossing character study that again demonstrates the talents of Paul Thomas Anderson.

You can read my interview with Paul Thomas Anderson by clicking here.