The Master (Rated R, 144 minutes)
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best modern filmmakers because his movies are smart and unapologetic. There is something fresh about a director who makes a visually stunning film that does not bother to ‘hold your hand’ through the narrative. Perhaps this leads to confusion, but the depth of his work turns the confusion into curiosity, which makes the audience long for repeat viewings.
Anderson has grown as a writer and director; I love Boogie Nights and Magnolia but I believe that they would be very different films if made by Anderson today. Furthermore, his writing has caught up to his ambitious technical nature; the character studies of The Master and There Will Be Blood are unrivaled in Hollywood. The complexities of his unstable characters are given life with calculated movements and dialogue. Everything in his movies has a purpose and it is the viewer’s job to figure out that purpose. This is also shown with the way Anderson shoots his films; the camera placement in The Master seems deliberate. He uses the camera to dictate the story, instead of the common practice of the story dictating where the camera goes. For instance, when Anderson shoots close ups in The Master, it is to show the character’s most vulnerable state. This is unlike other movies that use close ups liberally: Les Misérables.
His lingering shots throughout the film are both eerie and beautiful; there is a scene where both Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are in jail; the camera shot lingers on Freddie destroying his jail cell, while Lancaster tries to calm him down. This scene could have been a series of quick cuts showing Freddie destroying the cell but that would not have worked; instead, the camera just stands back and lingers on this scene well after Freddie’s tantrum ends. This unrelenting shot causes the scene to be unsettling and it makes the audience feel like a voyeur peering into the personal moments of these characters.
This consistent state of uneasiness affects the way the viewer thinks about ‘The Cause;’ the audience should feel happy that Freddie is finally accepted, but the constant camera placement never allows one to remain calm. This goes along with the beautiful score; even during Freddie’s happier scenes the score never allows the viewer to be relaxed. Lancaster Dodd is a charming enigmatic leader and one can understand his control over people; but both the score and the camera placement prevent the audience from being hypnotized.
With that said, the music is beautiful and the shots are downright gorgeous. The film worked because of the overall beauty of it; the lingering shots would not have been as haunting without the cinematography and the way the film uses natural light to establish shots are downright breathtaking. To be honest, it is a downright travesty that the Academy did not even give this film technical awards, but this ignorance was due more to the subject of the film: scientology.
As previously stated, The Master is a character study; it is the journey of a discharged naval officer, Freddie Quell, who cannot find his way after World War II. He drinks his life away, but at the same time, is emotionally unstable. From scene to scene, the audience does not know what Freddie is thinking or what he will do. He is a violent boozer who has an over-sexualized mind; but there is a childish charm to his actions. He does not know what is right and wrong because his mind operates at a different function; which is why the audience feels empathy for him. Yes, he is an anti-hero who does some horrendous things, but there is a piece of him who wants to be normal. A piece of him who wants to connect with other people and that makes ‘The Cause’ so spellbinding to him. When he wanders onto that ship and Lancaster Dodd takes an interest in him, the audience can understand why Freddie is so enamored.
With that said, the performances in this film cannot be understated; Anderson knows how to work with his actors to get nuanced performances. Countless times Anderson has worked with over-saturated actors and gotten career-defining performances out of them: Adam Sandler, Tom Cruise. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a performance much like Capote, in that he completely loses himself in his character; when one looks at Lancaster Dodd they do not see any of Hoffman’s characteristics.
While many say that Lancaster is based on Ron L. Hubbard, he is actually based on Orson Welles; the story may be loosely based on scientology, but Hoffman took character inspiration from the famous director. In fact, the viewer can clearly see Welles’s mannerisms and vocals in Hoffman’s performance; even when Hoffman emotes anger he sounds like the famous director. With Joaquin Pheonix, his unstable Freddie is brought to life with signature gestures; Freddie always has his hand on his hips, is slouched over and talks out of the left side of his mouth. Yes, these are small things, but it made Freddie feel like a real human.
Last is the always amazing Amy Adams as Lancaster Dodd’s wife Peggy, who is the scariest character in the film; while not the flashy performance that everyone will remember, she is the true master of the story. The way that she manipulates everyone including her own husband is both subtle and complex. She takes the pre-conceived notion of the loving wife and ‘turns it on its head.’
But all these performances would not have been possible without the fantastic writing of Paul Thomas Anderson. Instead of his characters being one-note creations, the audience continuously learns about them throughout the picture. For instance, Lancaster always calls Freddie’s anger his innate ‘animal tendencies,’ however, Lancaster cannot stop himself from resorting to this primitive state while arguing. Perhaps this is why Lancaster and Freddie were able to connect; Lancaster had the same urges as Freddie, but his primitive state is repressed. And Peggy keeps Lancaster’s urges repressed by manipulating the so-called Master and those around him.
This film is an utter masterpiece that people will need to re-watch in order to get a true understanding. If one were to nitpick the film, he or she could complain about the unconventional narrative structure; which at times left the film feeling convoluted and confusing. The film is not a plotted story, but a progression of Freddie through a period of time; yet, this is a small gripe about an overall remarkable film. Everyone needs to experience this film because between this and There Will Be Blood, Anderson challenges Hollywood conventions by making an unclassifiable but marvelous product.