From its opening moments, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
feels very much like a Kodachrome flashback, an occasionally sublime and occasionally jarring cinematic journey that won't please everyone, will piss off a few and will likely make more than a few blink with uncomfortable familiarity.
To pretend that I have full comprehension of exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson intended with The Master
would be to assume the role of Lancaster Dodd, Anderson's Dodd is portrayed by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman with a mix of combustibility and compassion woven into the genetic make-up of a man whose very soul seems to have become eroded by becoming the figurehead to a New Thought styled religion known only as The Cause, which is either intended to mirror the early days of Scientology or it isn't.
That ambiguity is exactly how Paul Thomas Anderson likes it.
A P.T. Anderson film has seldom been a cinematic journey for the lazy, with Anderson tending to avoid paint-by-numbers scripts, simplistic resolutions or strictly linear stories. While The Master
feels like a cousin to Anderson's last film There Will Be Blood,
it is most definitely a stand-alone film with characters whom you will find yourself processing long after the closing credits have scrolled by. If you're like me, you may even find yourself re-entering the movie theater within hours out of a desperation to get the words, images, thoughts, scenes and unspoken pieces that you may have missed.
In his first major role since that rather quirky doc I'm Still Here,
Joaquin Phoenix immerses himself in the enigma known as Freddie Quell, a traumatized and troubled World War II vet who stumbles across Dodd's yacht in San Francisco smack dab in the middle of the marriage of Dodd's daughter (Ambyr Childers). Quell is the Id to Dodd's superego, and the two essentially begin a dance of intellectual and post-traumatic intimacy that feels more than a little bit like a marriage that lasts only because the two people involved are dysfunctional in mutually compatible ways.
best scenes involve Quell and Dodd face off in what Dodd refers to as "processing," a term shared both intellectually and stylistically with Church of Scientology. These scenes are completely mesmerizing, especially one in which Quell is compelled to answer a series of increasingly vulnerable questions without so much as a blink. If he blinks, he "fails" and must start from the beginning. This battle, between "Master" and Master's "guinea pig and protege'" is marked by an emotional intensity rather remarkably brought to life by both Phoenix and Hoffman at the top of their games.
As brilliant as are Phoenix and Hoffman, Amy Adams may very well turn in the film's best and certainly most underrated performance as Dodd's wife, a woman who can simultaneously project loyal and faithful wife and driven megalomaniac. Having just seen Adams in the Clint Eastwood-led Trouble with the Curve,
it's nothing short of astounding to become awash in the vast differences in the two performances from Adams. Virtually everyone who is a key player in this film has at least unforgettable scene, and Adams is no exception with one rather brief encounter with her husband that leaves you breathless and reminded of Adams' acting brilliance.
is for the most part set in 1950, with an absolutely stunning production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk that a world in which it is impossible to not become immersed even if Anderson's directorial approach keeps everything rather opaque. Jonny Greenwood, a member of the rock band Radiohead, provides the film's original music that evokes both the period and the unsettling nature of the story unfolding. For the first time, Anderson is not working with longtime D.P. Roger Elswit but with Francis Ford Coppola fave Mihai Malaimare, Jr. Malaimare works in absolutely gorgeous 65 mm photography, somehow capturing both the epic nature of the story and the intimacy and smallness of the relationships.
While the comparisons to Scientology are inevitable and Anderson himself has acknowledged having drawn inspiration for the character of Lancaster Dodd from L. Ron Hubbard, The Master
is far more interested in the cult of personality than it is in exploring any particular religious or spiritual path. Those hoping to see a vicious expose' of Scientology will likely be disappointed, with The Master
proving to be a far more substantial film about the human condition and those who exploit it for their own gain.
To say that there will be Academy Award nominations for The Master
would be almost anti-climactic, though it will certainly be interesting to see if the film attracts the kudos that did There Will Be Blood.
My gut tells me "No," that this film is destined to return Anderson back to being more of a cult fave and a favorite of cinematic connoisseurs who embrace his approach and admire his artistic integrity. Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams should most assuredly find themselves with Oscar noms this year, and a Best Picture nomination along with a handful of tech noms should place The Master
on the list of 2012's most critically acclaimed films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic