Still from The Master (Photo : TWC Publicity)
To call director Paul Thomas Anderson "The Master" of the modern film would not be far from the truth. Throughout his still brief career, PTA (as the film world affectionately refers to him) has brought the world only a brief collection of six films to marvel upon, but quality and innovation has always been his signature. His latest endeavor entitled "The Master" may be his boldest film yet as it encapsulates the very different journeys of two men lost in a post World War II world and seeking out wholeness.
The film is essentially an ambitious and quasi-scientific dissertation on free will and human connection. Anderson's central guinea pig is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a soldier returning to America after the war. Freddie's experiences in the war seem to have dehumanized him as he strays and behaves in primitive and animalistic manners. Satiating his basic instincts seems to be his modus operandi as he has sex with a sand woman on the beach, and seeks out every possible means of quenching his alcoholism. After being rejected by the world on several occasions, he finds himself before Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who claims to be a scientist, writer, philosopher, doctor, you name it. Dodd leads a group known as the Cause in which he seeks to explain how humans are connected to their past lives and that by traveling to those past memories over trillions of years, they can finally arrive at peace and health. But like Freddie, Lancaster is also rejected by the world for his radical thoughts and his cult-like practices.
What follows is a gripping portrait of these two men's growing relationship and their need for one another. The beauty of the portrayal is how ambiguous Anderson manages to maintain their association as they take turns playing Master and Slave. At certain moments, it seems obvious who is the man in charge, but Anderson is phenomenal at turning the tables on you in the slightest of manners and in the most unexpected of ways.
Most fortunate of all is the two performances on display from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix looks emaciated throughout and his facial contortions emphasize his distraught and inhuman behavior. His demeanor almost seems like a continuous battle between his animalistic and human sides and the spontaneity that Phoenix brings throughout make one uneasy. At times he looks like a potent beast, but then he also looks and behaves like a lovable puppy.
Hoffman brings a cool and collected manner to the proceedings in what may be the Academy Award Winner's greatest performance. Unlike Phoenix he always looks in control, but he too is susceptible to moments of emotional weakness and explosiveness. His animalistic behavior is not as visually apparent as Phoenix's but more of a cerebral animalism that he reveals slowly throughout the course of the film. A warm fuzzy fatherly type that is simultaneously vicious might be a way to describe it.
In my opinion, these two bring their tremendous skills to the fore in a truly mesmerizing scene in which Dodd "processes" Freddie. As the scene turns, both of these characters alternate their position in a power struggle that may be one of the film's peaks. The scene builds as the power struggle heightens and just when you think one character is completely in control, an emotional recollection from the other leaves him equally susceptible. This scene is shot in tight closeups that emphasize the claustrophobic state of their lives, but as it develops, the closeups no longer feel like an intense claustrophobia but an intimate moment between two lost souls.
Equally brilliant is Amy Adams who like the others brings what is likely her best performance to the screen. Behind that sweet angelic face however there is also a beast ready to unleash herself when ever necessary. The idea of the title takes on new meaning when Adams character is brought into the conversation.
As brilliant as the performances and the filmmaking is (and it is astounding), the story seems to take a dip in the final half hour as Anderson seems to have lost the thread on these characters relationships. It almost feels sporadic and ultimately a bit trying on the patience as he shifts and turns with no sense of direction. And while this lack of direction surely correlates with his characters, it feels a bit like a letdown as the ambitious ideas almost feel abandoned. Anderson has packed so many ideas into the script that it seemed like it was ultimately too unwieldy for him as the film progressed. For example, Freddie's main fixation at the start of the story is sex. It essentially dominates who he is. By the time the story comes to its second half, that element of his personality is non-existent and while it eventually returns, it does not bring any insight into his character. Anderson hints at it, but goes nowhere with it. It could certainly be argued that under Dodd's guidance, Freddie has diminished his animalistic instincts, but sex did not seem to be simply Freddie's expression of his animalistic instincts, but of his loneliness and search for human connection. The fact that sexual connection is never considered by Anderson during Freddie's time with Dodd makes it seem like a missed opportunity for more philosophical and psychological investigation.
But if the second half of the film slowly loses its sense of direction, the first half is a knockout to be sure as Anderson ties small pieces together to slow build up his characters in fascinating manners. As aforementioned, the processing scene represents the highlight, but among other major touchstones is a scene in prison between Dodd and Freddie as well as a few intimate moments between Adams and Dodd that truly reveal and shock the audience with how these character's relationships progress.
The cinematography of Mihai Malaire Jr. is truly something to marvel at. The subdued desaturated colors that dominate make the world of the film feel dead and raw and lend themselves beautifully to the lonely mood of the story. Anderson's trademark long steadicam shots are back with a vengeance. One particular visual moment that comes to mind is watching Freddie walk through the night after being rejected for a second time from a group of farmers. In the distance, the image is blurred and in comes Freddie from right frame walking toward this indistinct background. We follow him for a bit and eventually the focus shifts and we finally perceive the distant background to be a boat. Freddie looks over and away and when he does, the boat goes out of focus once more as we follow this character. Eventually he mounts the boat and sets up his meeting with Dodd. In the context, the image emphasized the disconnect of Freddie from the world despite his walking toward it. The constant focus shifts emphasize his psychological process of whether to choose to go for it or remain isolated.
Radiohead guitarist and composer Johnny Greenwood's music is haunting. It brings a bizarre otherworldliness to the proceedings and feels as if it is trying to come to terms with the world of the story. I don't mean this in any negative way as the music's development from disembodied to closer purity was one of the more engaging aspects of the film.
Ultimately, Anderson continues to emphasize that he is one of the world's leading cinema artists. "The Master" may not possess the formal perfection or thematic congruity of some of his past works, but it is still an exemplary work of art.
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