By Philip Newton (England)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an epic much in the same vein as the critically acclaimed There Will Be Blood which he directed several years earlier. Although I would not put The Master quite in the same class of There Will Be Blood, it does present similar qualities being visually breath-taking in scope and scenery, however intimate with it it’s characters with some of the finest acting seen in a contemporary motion picture.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) begins the film as a World War II navy veteran trying to adjust to a normal life following his return home from war. Freddie however is clearly mentally scarred from his years at sea, and cannot seem to find a way to fit into regular life. He becomes a photographer at a department store, however, and gets into a fight with a customer, he then becomes a cabbage farmer, however he poisons one of the workers with a lethal alcohol concoction he had been perfecting. This leads Freddie to becoming a stowaway on a ship one night which is owned by the enigmatic figure Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who instead of sending Freddie away, is intrigued by him and invites Freddie to join his group the cause. What begins is a disturbing exploration into the nature of cults and a strange love story which draws the two together, creating an unlikely bond.
The Master raises many themes, from firstly the impact which a cult group can have on an individual, to the character study of a clearly unbalanced man relating to the character of Quell, and whether this form of treatment is good or bad for him needing instead professional psychological support. We then finally have the relationship between Quell and Dodd which does work in many respects as a love story, both characters are seemingly committed to one another, and there is a clear sense of loyalty and trust.
These are all really interesting ideas; however I found perhaps there were too many at times, with the film not trying to focus on any one particular issue. The cult theme for example was fairly well explored, Anderson perhaps reflecting the current ideas of Scientology and we do get particular scenes which explain these beliefs. The scene where Dodd is explaining his methods to a sceptic accusing him of merely hypnotising his subjects is powerfully acted and chillingly real. I would have liked to have seen more about the cult and their reasons for getting into the subconscious of past lives which could be seen as a method of psychological support.
It instead does not go to any great detail with this and balances it with the character study of Quell and then his relationship with Dodd. It was juggling too many narrative strands that at times it felt that it was getting a little lost, and not assured of its direction and focus.
Anderson scores big however with how he presents his pictures, The Master takes on the feel of an epic with fantastic cinematography. The opening moment at sea is beautifully shot and a wonderfully visual way of defining the character of Quell, as a man seemingly still lost at sea unable to escape the life he once knew. The scene with the motorcycle in the desert is also spectacular in how it is framed, presenting great mood and atmosphere.
Anderson then contrasts this with great intimacy with his characters, we have many close ups with specific scenes which actually heightens the power of the performances specifically between Hoffman and Phoenix, who have great chemistry here. The initial processing meeting between both is a great introduction to these characters, Phoenix and his erratic facial movements and physical mannerisms, to Hoffman’s calm assured insistence on the truth.
The final intimate scene with both has more emotion, and defines their relationship in the film, in particular Dodd singing to Quell. It is magically performed and directed, moving back and forth between close up shots of both actors. Hoffman showing pain and sadness and Phoenix also moved with a tear coming from his eye, truly mesmerising cinema.
Anderson is able to once again give audiences a deep and intelligent story which actually makes us think and question its issues rather leaving our brains at the door. And although perhaps at times it gets a little lost with what the story is ultimately trying to convey relating to its themes, he does take his audience seriously enough to believe we can handle this kind of material.