Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I usually reserve this first paragraph of my review as a sort of introduction to the film in terms of how it might connect to me, or interest me in some way. Yet when I sat down to write about this film, I drew a blank. I could easily write entire paragraphs on the writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and his past, present and future cinematic genius, but that seems tired. I could speak to the incomparable Joaquin Phoenix and his return from hiatus; I could talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman and how much I adore him, but still yet not as much as I adore Amy Adams. But I don’t want to, and I can’t really talk about what the film meant to me because it generally left me unconnected. I wouldn’t say cold, because cold is an adjective left to films I dislike. So I guess with this paragraph I will settle for this statement: The Master left me completely disconnected, yet is undeniably a film that still manages to permeate the skin and live somewhere within.
Freddie (Phoenix) has just come back home after World War II and finds himself drifting from job to job and city to city, never able to fully adjust back to normal society life. It is clear he is troubled, quite violent in fact. A condition that may be aided by the potent potion he concocts for himself using a variety of products that contain alcohol. So when he stumbles onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), he finally finds some direction under Dodd and his philosophies. After many travels, tension builds between Freddie and the rest of the Dodds, including Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Adams), who wants Freddie out of the group. But back by Lancaster and his will to help the man, Freddie and his eccentric and disruptive behavior remain. But how long can the two exist together?
Now, I made a seemingly contradictory statement before, so I suppose I ought to somehow explain myself. The first part of my claim was that the film left me disconnected, and it did. The film takes place in the world of the fifties, beautifully captured by Jack Fisk and the production team, but time is not the issue here. No, what I found difficult was finding a way to relate to the story and the characters. Anderson the writer is marvelous at creating distinctive and endlessly interesting characters, and Freddie and Dodd are certainly that, but he also usually creates characters that seem distant from who I am and what I can relate to. And in connection to this point is the character of Peggy Dodd. Amy Adams, unfortunately, seems more out of place in this role than I have ever seen her. That was how I first reacted to the film and the performance. But you know what? Paul Thomas Anderson seeps into the soul somehow to manipulate in the most wonderful way. Since I have walked out of the theater, I have reconsidered my position and think that maybe this awkwardness is intentional, a subtle delivery of the characters nature, and just another bit of evidence of Anderson’s genius.
Which brings me to part two: the film living within. When I said that it may have been more clear for me to just say that it is a film that, the further away I become from my initial reaction to the film, and perhaps the more times I see the film, the more I can see myself coming to the conclusion that the film is a masterpiece of cinema. As I mentioned, the writing is top notch and Anderson handles the camera so well, creating more than a few scenes that are left in the psyche to play over and again as being dynamite drama. And, as ever, the film is endlessly beautiful in its cinematography. Just great to look at. Anderson is so confident in his material and vision, as he should be, that he takes his time developing these characters and bringing them into the story. We don’t even meet the Dodd until well past the 30 minute mark, and we don’t have to, we shouldn’t, and Anderson knows this. It makes the film much more effective by taking its time. Not enough can be said for the pacing of the film and the creation of mood throughout.
So where does that leave me as I head to the exit after the credits? Cold? No, I already said cold is inaccurate. To be honest, my initial reaction was not to be wowed by what I had seen. There was no snap reaction to call the film a masterpiece and no urge to recommend the film as being one of the best I had seen all year. And yet, it was. I think I might compare, if you could humor me for a second, I think I might compare this film to my experience with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from a year ago. Both films are just so quietly remarkable that they seep into your senses slowly enough that when proper reflection is allowed, they explode into epic proportions of awesomeness. Is The Master in fact a masterpiece? Ask me in five years and I suspect the answer might be yes.
***1/2 – Great
P.S. I suppose it bears mentioning that Hoffman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. But then again it probably doesn’t take me to point that out at this point.