Mike’s Review: ‘The Master’ Is A Slow Burn, Tense and A Little PerverseBy
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is both exactly what you expect and completely unexpected. Fans of the filmmaker will undoubtedly recognize his style, even though it has constantly evolved with each work. The movie is mesmerizing and unsettling. If you didn’t like There Will Be Blood, you more than likely won’t enjoy this one either. The pacing is similar and the momentary spouts of violence are there. Yet, as much as The Master feels like a blood relative of Anderson’s prior film, it’s far from it.
To write a review only a day after the special pop-up screening in Chicago seems contradictory, as this is not a film that warrants a gut reaction. It deserves deep thought and consideration, both in its narrative structure and its existential message. The Master is a film that should be constantly reflected upon, for months, not days or hours. I fully expect it to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s most discussed film. It’s message is so enigmatic and its characters are so multi-layered that it finds a way to keep your brain running in circles.
The two main characters, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are complete opposites. As expressed in one intense argument by Dodd, we need “the positives and the negatives.” They feed off each other so well, both as characters and actors, that every moment they share on screen is as exciting as an action movie climax. Dodd is always collected and calculating, but not in a sinister way. He has an unwavering passion for waking the human spirit and forcing mankind to acknowledge themselves as superior in every way (I’m aware of the Scientology buzz around this film, but I didn’t see it, mainly because I don’t care. It worked as its own story.). And that’s why he is so drawn to Freddie, a man so in tune with his animalistic instincts that he seems impossible to tame.
We actually do not get to witness Dodd and Freddie’s first interaction. It happens off-camera during one of Freddie’s blackout drunk evenings after he stumbles onto Dodd’s private boat. Yet, in hindsight, we can imagine just what went through Dodd’s mind as they met. He must have seen this broken man, a lost man, coming back to the States from World War II with nothing to offer. His disgusting personality is reminiscent of a more primitive species. He hunches over like a man caught between the evolution of ape and man. He snarls like a rabid dog. He has no sense of etiquette. He mumbles his dialogue, which actually helps add tension because you are on the edge of your seat trying to decipher his language. And it’s on the edge of your seat that you lose all control as an audience member. So, when he bursts, you’re not ready. In typical P.T. Anderson fashion, all these characteristics come off as comical at first.
The Master is a film of patience. Dodd’s goal is clear as he attempts to tame Freddie. The film’s strength lies within its own patience. Yes, it grows weary and arduous. Many will check their watches in the theatre. It feels like four hours, even though it’s just over two. But if you inspect it a little closer, you’ll see the method in the madness. Anderson understands what each film needs. He is a master tactician of both pace and framing, depending on the story being told. One “application” sequence in The Master goes on and on and on. But had he simply skimmed over it in the best interest of the antsy audience member, he would have done the story a disservice. Because Freddie’s gradual transformation into the character he is destined to become in this film is one that doesn’t come easy. It frustrates Dodd and his equally influential wife, Mary Sue (Amy Adams). At times you have to wonder if Freddie’s presence will be the end of Dodd and his isolated secret society. That’s the real tension of the film. You just never know when or if the fragile tower of Cause (Dodd’s society’s name) will come tumbling down and who might get hurt in the fall.
At about the halfway point in the film, I started to feel a strong vibe from another one of cinema’s most beloved films – The Godfather. Without giving away the plot to The Master, it’s pretty clear that Anderson drew heavy influence from this masterpiece. I couldn’t help but see dozens of similarities between Freddie Quell and Michael Corleone. It’s all under the surface, really, but it’s there. They share an unpredictable nature. They seem calm, but you know that at any moment they might bash somebody’s face in. And like Corleone, Freddie enters an unfamiliar world that is set in its way, controlled by a singular figure. While I don’t expect any kind of sequel, an argument could be made for a trilogy with the The Master. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it went down almost exactly like The Godfather. But like I said, it’s a more subterranean comparison here. I wish I could say more, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just consider the similarities when you watch the film.
Without question, this film will earn its place among the year’s best. The characters alone warrant many awards nominations. But it’s so wonderfully written that it’s hard to imagine any film topping it in screenplay. The dialogue is cryptic at times, but at other times so deliberate and direct and thought-provoking that it will stick with me for a long time. But the script owes a deep gratitude to the actors. Phoenix is completely unhinged in the best possible way. He channels so many great performances of the past, namely Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Phoenix’s physicality is everywhere and his violence is palpable when the outbursts do arrive. I’ve only seen a few performances as riveting as Phoenix here. Hoffman is completely in his element as well. He is just so good at being calm, while also making us nervous. Amy Adams brought her own intensity, playing a character similar to a Presidential First Lady. When she sees Dodd’s vulnerability surface, she steps in with such ferocity that you wonder if she wears the high-waisted pants sometimes. It’s an interesting dynamic.
As usual, Paul Thomas Anderson’s most obvious strength lies in his visual style. He is arguably the best “framing” director today. His placement of characters within environment is unparalleled. He tells the story not just with dialogue and action, but with his shot selections. The cameras are steady. The shots are long. It just oozes confidence. The focus is pristine and the 70mm print we were blessed with viewing was as clear as anything I’ve ever seen. Just a few weeks removed from The Dark Knight Rises, I was immediately taken back to the image quality of IMAX. They share a quality that makes you want to touch the screen. And while I would argue that digital cinema is fast approaching this level of quality, there’s a gentle side to film that will never be matched. The very first shot is a bright, blue ocean getting ripped by the engines of a warship. It is impossibly beautiful. I’m not sure how this will translate to regular movie theaters, but it should still impress.
Prepare yourself for something special when you go to The Master. It’s not quite like Anderson’s past work, but you feel the DNA of his style here. No other filmmaker would have made this film, but it stills feels fresh in Anderson’s repertoire. He is clearly still evolving, but one thing is certain – he knows how to rely on his actors. The casting is perfect in The Master. At one point I thought back to Shia LaBeouf’s recent questionable comments on his future in acting and though, “LaBeouf is going to be pissed off he missed this role.” Yet, if LaBeouf played Freddie, I imagine the character would have seemed less deliberate and more childish. Childish this film is not. It is the very definition of mature cinema. It’s thought-provoking, unnerving, tense and a little perverted at times. It’s a must-see.
What Should You Do? Watch it. Study It. Discuss It. It might be the most talked about movie in the film community this year. Don’t be left out.