There will be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love. Those familiar with Paul Thomas Anderson’s films don’t need to read any review to watch The Master. Those unfamiliar with his films have never been exposed to cinema of a higher order. He is the Orson Welles of the modern era, and he demonstrates the same with exceptional passion in his latest. A story dealing with a Scientologist may seem like an odd choice for Anderson but he pulls it off and presents to us his most sublime and most underrated film.
The Master is an impeccably crafted, surreal fever dream, a story told through a lens that gives the most mundane a heightened sense of realism and the real world a strange hallucinatory effect. Anderson explores the themes he so often plays with – loneliness among a crowd and the need to be reclusive when everyone needs you. Like in his previous films he doles out frames of technical brilliance and considerable beauty, with the trademark deliberate slow pacing that continually make his characters and their creator all the more fascinating.
But this is not just a surreal film for the sake of being a trippy movie. Anderson has never been so simple to make a film which is ONLY a love story, or ONLY an ensemble drama, The Master has a lot of depth and a hidden meaning. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie, a mentally unbalanced man, a drifter and societal menace, losing himself in alcohol after a stint in the Navy during WWII, becoming more and more agitated each day. Things take a turn when he sneaks into a ship to steal some alcohol and meets the charismatic, mysterious Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual man leading a semi-religious cult called The Cause that indulges in mental auditing to ‘heal’ damaged people. Lancaster takes pity on Freddie and becomes attached to him, determined to purge him of his troubles. Freddie is awestruck by the Master’s organization and techniques built on the his beliefs of past lives and rigorous mental testing, but confronting his own past during the ‘healing’ sessions becomes a struggle as the Master’s erratic behavior is complimented by the increasingly bizarre foundations of The Cause.
Phoenix and Hoffman are absolutely electrifying in their roles with method performances taken to extreme levels. Phoenix’s scowl showing utter disdain towards society is unsettling to say the least, as is Hoffman’s take on Scientology founder Ron Hubbard. Anderson doesn’t outright demonize Scientology but it is easy to spot the parallels – the recording audit sessions, the financial frauds, the unintentionally hilarious ego of the Master, the delusions of him and his followers. It’s creepy and fascinating to explore the fact that humans when pushed to the extreme rely on any kind of delusion to survive the real world. The other standout performance comes from Amy Adams as Lancaster’s supportive wife, she is excellent at looking naïve and melancholy in one scene and batshit crazy in the next.
Anderson is always intriguing because his films are never really easy to fully ingest the first time around. Even Punch Drunk Love has a deeper subtext to the romantic text, that it’s a film about isolation and entrapment in an unjust society. The Master seems to be about two men trying to become the ruler of their own worlds, but ultimately failing. Both Freddie and Lancaster constantly strive for prominence, but can never escape their own speciousness. Both men are opportunists who feel that taking risks will ultimately get them some pride in the festering bunghole that is the human race. Neither of them have any real dignity, honor, or even scruples (Lancaster embezzles govt funds while Freddie uses women), and eventually when they undergo a great deal of suffering they try to be good people but fail miserably, despite not having any fault of their own.
The cinematography of The Master is dreamy to a fault, but so visually breathtaking that its excesses guarantee drool. This is Anderson’s most visually exquisite film and he has lavished on his project a kind of attention to emotional detail that will remain unmatched in the years to come. In an effort to recreate the look of the post WWII era, Anderson and his DOP Mihai Malaimare shot the film on 65mm which yields significantly greater image area and more depth, clarity and emotional impact on the screen. Most of the film is naturally lit but it is hard to overstate how gorgeous it looks:
Music, as always with Anderson, is integral to the film and here Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of Radiohead composes some otherworldly stuff that is extremely well used with the unreal visuals. There is so much squeezed in the two hour twenty minutes runtime that you'd think it could be either too much or too little, but Anderson finds a fine balance and allows the characters and story to unwind perfectly.
(First published in MiD Day)