'THE MASTER' - REVIEW - Standby Productions



Five years ago, Paul Thomas Anderson released his turn-of-the-century oil baron epic ‘There Will Be Blood’ onto an unsuspecting world. Already widely regarded as one of the most daring and relevant directors in contemporary American cinema, ‘There Will Be Blood’ cemented Anderson’s position as not only a true cinematic auteur, but also as the most important American filmmaker of his generation.

With 2008 having passed, the question became, how was Anderson ever going to follow up something decorated by so many as the finest American film of the decade? For most, the pressure would surely of been crippling. Anderson, however, had set a minor precedent. Having completed the three-hour Magnolia back in ‘99, a film unanimously lauded by critics (and one which Anderson himself claimed he would never better), the question on most peoples lips was, “what next?” The answer, somewhat unbelievably, was a 90-minute romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. There was widespread disbelief at the choice, and yet the result was another masterstroke. Full of life and energy, ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ remains to this day the most idiosyncratic of Anderson’s filmography. It is perhaps fitting that in many ways, ‘The Master’ owes more of a debt to this colourful oddity than to its immediate predecessor. Defter in touch, and lighter in tone than ‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘The Master’ is full of moments of humour, some perhaps unintentional, some very intentional, though that certainly is not meant as a slight to the film’s ambitions. Beneath the gorgeous veneer of the picture is a study of two men grappling with the very essence of their being in a post-war America. Popcorn fare this isn’t!

The film centres around the haunted figure of naval veteran Freddie Quell, played with animalistic ferocity by Joaquin Phoenix. He is a loner, someone whose experiences at war have clearly left him in an altered state. We see him, for the first part of the film, drifting through his life, trying his hand at different careers, womanizing, drinking. Freddie Quell is an alcoholic, make no mistake about that. He has no real direction in his life to speak of, until he stumbles across the charismatic figure of Lancaster Dodd, played with zest and life by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Thus begins, for a lack of a better description, a love story between these two men. There is a strange magnetism that seems to exist between them both, as they are inexplicitly drawn to one another.

The film itself has become known in the press as “that Scientology movie”. It is true that Dodd’s movement, ‘The Cause’, is loosely based on the early days of Dianetics (the foundation of modern day Scientology), and that the character of Dodd is the director’s interpretation of L. Ron Hubbard, with ‘The Cause’ depicted as an examination of the metaphysical, and the reincarnation of the human soul (Dodd at one point states that our past lives could be traced back “billions, perhaps even trillions of years”). However, Anderson merely uses this as a platform to examine wider questions on belief systems and faith. ‘The Cause’ may well be entirely manufactured nonsense (as Dodd’s son at one point claims), but if it ultimately helps fulfill and better ones life then where is the harm? The same charge could surely be leveled at any belief or religious system. Does Dodd truly believe the authenticity of his own work, or is the charismatic leader merely exploiting his followers (including Freddie) for his own gain? These are all questions that are left for the audience to interpret for themselves.

The film is certainly the least accessible of Anderson’s to date, lacking anything resembling a traditional narrative and story arc. In fact, for a film that is so quintessentially driven by it’s two lead actors, there is nary a character arc in motion here. The situations change around them, true, but there is no sense of real resolution, or any real hint of an epiphany from any of the characters. In many ways, they end the film as they begin it. Some critics have pointed to this as evidence of the film’s failings, saying that Anderson refuses to make any judgments or decisions about these characters, or the movement. After all, storytelling is all in the decisions a writer chooses to make. Does this really mark the ‘The Master’ as a failure though? The film makes the conscious decision to drift in and out of the lives of these characters over a few short years, before departing. Personally, I found it a rich and fulfilling snapshot of a long-lost era of Twentieth Century America.

Lyrical, poetic, haunting and strangely sweet natured at times, this period piece is sure to both dazzle and baffle audiences. For many, the somewhat languid storytelling devices that Anderson employs will prove to be too frustrating to truly enjoy this work. However, for those that are able to engage with the material on show here, there is much to love. Anderson immaculately recreates this era, elegantly capturing every detail through his use of 35mm and 65mm film stock (the first fiction film to be shot on 65mm in over 15 years). A beautifully composed love-letter to the medium of film, ‘The Master’ is a wonderful example of an aesthetic feel and quality that simply cannot be replicated outside of celluloid, something that becomes increasingly more important to recognize as we quickly move into the digital age of cinema. ‘The Master’ is my pick for film of the year.



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