"“A thoughtfully crafted, intelligent piece of cinema...”"
There are few filmmakers in world cinema consistently producing films as high in standard as Paul Thomas Anderson, and five years on from his double-Oscar winning There Will be Blood, expectations are high for The Master, and once again, the talented director does not disappoint, in what is a riveting and compelling character study of a fragile soul, seeking refuge in a charismatic cult leader.
Set in post-World War Two America, Naval veteran Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) returns home from years of service, tentative and ambivalent of what the future holds, as he struggles to settle down and maintain a job, bearing an unhealthy addiction to alcohol. That is, however, until he stumbles into the path of author and preacher Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who takes the troubled alcoholic under his wing, hoping to provide a better life for him, and change his fortunes.
It soon transpires that Lancaster is the head of a cult called 'The Cause', a philosophical movement frowned upon by various members of society. Despite the inherent, fundamental issues within Freddie – who is full of suppressed emotions, particularly with regards to his former lover Doris (Madisen Beaty) - Lancaster persists in helping the beleaguered drifter, although those around him, including his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), see Freddie as a lost cause.
As expected, The Master is a thoughtfully crafted, intelligent piece of cinema, and one that although set 60 years or so into the past, is a story that still resonates with contemporary society – there are definite comparisons to be found between The Cause and Scientology. The Master is one of those films that if you dig deep enough there is so much to it – such as the homoerotic subplot between Freddie and Lancaster - comprising a film that demands a second viewing. However, given the pensive, slow-burning nature to this film, you may wish to put that on hold.
Anderson cleverly puts us in the shoes of Lancaster, as curing Freddie seems like an arduous, hopeless task, and it makes for frustrating viewing watching the cult even attempt to turn his life around and change it for the better. Freddie is an intricate, delicate soul and one that provokes much empathy from the audience, and so much credit must go to Phoenix for pulling off this outstanding performance. Never mind an Oscar nomination, it will be an outrage if Phoenix doesn't win the damn thing outright.
He just changes his whole demeanour to suit the role at hand, cementing his status as one of the world’s finest physical performers. He has this recklessness behind his eyes, and an unpredictability that makes him perfect for this role. Of course he has a somewhat twisted history in a similar field himself, and you can see his past experiences and pain shine through in this performance, not to mention his brilliantly construed, gaunt stare that gives off the impression that he never quite knows what is going on around him.
Meanwhile, whatever Phoenix manages, Hoffman matches, in an equally as superb performance, just in a completely different way. The actor – also Oscar bound, one hopes – emanates a sense of reassurance, as a calming presence that is full of charisma, although you never once doubt his ability to manipulate, and bully. However you can't help but like him, and abide by him, which is essential, as we need to believe in this role and appreciate the influence he has over people to justify the entire production. And we certainly do.
Also featuring a memorable score, provided by the brilliant Radiohead composer Jonny Greenwood, and a wonderful bluesy 50s soundtrack to boot, The Master really captures the essence of the period in which it's set. If you analyse this film theoretically, it's an outstanding piece of cinema; beautifully shot (catch it in 70mm if you can), you really feel that every single frame is deliberately implemented for a desired effect. However, despite this, you can't disregard or excuse the levels of tedium reached in the final third, which do prevent this film from being considered an all-time classic. It's not too far away, mind.