‘Master’ captivates with compelling lead performances
Movie Review | 4.5 out of 5 stars
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 01:09
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film, “The Master,” explores heavy topics like existentialism, religion and the human need for trust and support with incredible prowess. The film asks some serious and difficult questions, and instead of providing solid answers it forces its viewers to ponder and reflect on their own. This may sound like a frustrating approach, but the result is quite the opposite. It may be impossible to completely understand “The Master,” but its unanswered questions — and the characters’ attempts to find meaning — are utterly compelling.
Set in the 1950s, “Master” tells the tale of Freddie Quell, a tortured soul and alcoholic World War II veteran who drifts from job to job with no sense of direction or purpose. Following his enigmatic turn in the pseudo-documentary “I’m Still Here” (2010), Joaquin Phoenix delivers a career-affirming performance that should guarantee him an Academy Award nomination. Phoenix gives a haunting performance, and its brazen physicality supplements Freddie’s relentless fury and madness.
Freddie’s meaningless existence changes irrevocably one day when he meets Lancaster Dodd, the enthusiastic and confident leader of a cult-like movement similar to the Church of Scientology who describes himself as an everyman of many trades.
“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher ... but above all I am a man. Hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you,” says Dodd when he first introduces himself. He is deftly played by the always-reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman.
As the plot progresses, Dodd’s religious movement, The Cause, moves to the background of the film. The main spotlight shifts instead to the relationship developing between Dodd, a questionable leader, and Freddie, a lost man looking for a calling. At first, the two characters form and fortify a master-servant bond. However, as if to call to mind the dangers of blind obedience, their idealistic relationship begins to clash with reality. The two embark on a twisty journey to prove The Cause’s legitimacy and their devotion to their roles of master and servant. Regardless of the dynamic, the riveting interactions that transpire between Phoenix and Hoffman solidify their roles in the great pantheon of memorable film characters.
Lancaster Dodd is indeed a “master” in every sense of the word: His followers, his wife (Amy Adams) and especially Freddie are all smitten with his wit and easy charm. However, perhaps the real “master” at work here is director Paul Thomas Anderson, who boldly wrote and directed this picture. As with his previous film, “There Will Be Blood” (2007), Anderson writes and presents striking and memorable imagery with the gusto of a visionary. Shot in gorgeous 70mm, with breathtaking cinematography that envelops the viewer, the film is best experienced on the largest screen possible.
If there are flaws to be found in “Master,” they are mostly inconsequential — the film’s abrupt ending could irk some viewers, for example. But altogether, “The Master’s” strengths overwhelmingly outweigh its faults.
An ominous menace lurks in every scene of “The Master,” and audiences will feel as if something could go wrong at any moment. Anxiety pervades the film, and it mimics the sensation one experiences when contemplating the unfathomable. This subtle suspense propels the film.
“The Master” is not an easy film to understand — or even enjoy — but palatable is not what it intends to be. Like the existentialist turmoil it presents, “Master” wants viewers to glean their own meaning from the events and discussions that transpire. The story that unfolds is complex and spellbinding to behold; the film is itself a work of poetry. A modern classic, “The Master” is not a must-see — it is a must-experience.