The Master (The Weinstein Company, R)

master 75Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are absolutely compelling, even more so when the two are onscreen together.


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I’m at a loss right now. I feel silly attempting to write a review of The Master. What of value could I possibly say about it? I could tell you that it’s very good, but you probably already know that. This isn’t really a movie about plot, so synopsizing that won’t do much good. And any dissection of themes or ideas would be pointless until I’d taken in multiple other viewings down the line. Now, don’t worry, I will do all those things. I just wanted to acknowledge that if you are the one person out there who hasn’t made up their mind about whether or not to see this movie, I’m not going to be of much use to you.

The Master tells the story of a World War II veteran named Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Quell is a deeply disturbed alcoholic who is having trouble re-entering civilized life. He meets a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes Quell under his wing. Dodd is a writer and scientist, and is building up a cult of followers, into which Quell is quickly inducted. There has been some mild controversy over how loosely or directly this cult is meant to resemble the church of Scientology. I’m no expert, but even based on a rudimentary knowledge of Scientology, this seems pretty close.

This is the sixth movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, who is not the director of the Resident Evil movies. PTA made his name with the Altman-esque ensemble dramas Boogie Nights and Magnolia. His last film, There Will Be Blood, as well as The Master, are much more in the vein of Kubrick. In between these two periods of his career, he made Punch-Drunk Love, which is my personal favorite for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s because it manages to be the most Paul Thomas Andersony movie ever, while simultaneously being nothing like any of his other films—or anyone else’s really.

Anderson’s camerawork has always been exceptional, but now he focuses less on moving the camera in kinetic ways, and more on crafting impeccable images, which he fearlessly holds on for seconds longer than most modern movies would ever allow. I like both aesthetics. Much, if not all, of this film was shot on 65mm film, by Mihai Malaimare Jr., standing in for Anderson’s usual cinematographer, Robert Elswit. Every frame is gorgeous.

The shadow of There Will Be Blood looms large over this film, but I will say that, in one major way, this film outdoes its 2007 older brother. I’ve always had a problem with Paul Dano’s performance in There Will Be Blood. I find him to be an almost intolerable presence in most things, but I especially hated seeing him go head to head with Daniel Day-Lewis. I never bought their relationship, and I think I would love There Will Be Blood more than I already do if Lewis had had an actor worthy of sparring with. In The Master, both of the key performances are spectacular. I never bought Dano as a religious figure who would inspire anyone, but Philip Seymour Hoffman (who was conspicuously absent from There Will Be Blood) has enough charisma, charm, and warmth that I fully believed people would follow him, especially someone as lost as Freddie Quell.

Joaquin Phoenix certainly has a more showy performance. He has more distinct mannerisms, such as the way he puts his hands on his hips, sticks out his jaw, and talks out of the side of his mouth. Like Day-Lewis in Blood, he flirts dangerously with going over the top, and sometimes just goes there, but he never feels like he has gotten too big for the movie. A scene early on in which Hoffman asks him a series of questions is some of the best acting I’ve seen in quite some time. Whenever these two are on screen, especially together, the movie is absolutely compelling.

The other standout performance is by Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife. She has a commanding presence, even when she is sitting silently in a room full of loud, charismatic people. As the film goes on, we wonder whether she is more of a follower or a leader. She often walks all over her husband.

There are many ways to relate Anderson’s last two films to Kubrick, but the most distinct for me is that they require multiple viewings. I remember seeing There Will Be Blood the first time and not even knowing what I thought about it. There was so much to the film, I had to go back and see it again. Honestly, it took three viewings for me to fully appreciate how great it was, and several more viewings later, I still feel like there is more for me to discover about it. The Master makes There Will Be Blood look like Boogie Nights. It is so dense, and so unusual. As I watched it, I just kind of let it wash over me. I’m sure huge sections of the film have already left my mind, just because I couldn’t take everything in the first time. I don’t know ultimately how this film will stack up in relation to Anderson’s other work, or to other films of the year. All I know is that I was swept up in it, and for its two-hour-and-twenty-seven minute run time, I never looked at my watch once. So, to state the obvious, you should probably check it out. | Sean Lass

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