The Master is a cult film that came out in late 2012 and is Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to the great There Will Be Blood. Let’s take a dive into this commonly overlooked and misunderstood modern masterwork.
Every now and then, a film will speak to you so much on a personal level that you develop an emotional attachment to it. You feel naturally drawn to the world that has been created and what it’s ultimately communicating. For me, The Master is one of those films.
In a nutshell, The Master is about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to post war society and has personal trauma as well as unstable animalistic behavior. One night, Freddie drunkenly stumbles upon a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a cult movement called “The Cause”. As Freddie finds a place of acceptance in this cult, he develops a distinctive and deeply rooted bond with Lancaster. From there the film is…very unique. It further dives into the themes explored in There Will Be Blood but in a more personable manner.
The Master is an enigmatic masterpiece and is perhaps my favorite achievement Paul Thomas Anderson has done to date. It’s neck to neck with There Will Be Blood, at least. It’s an endlessly compelling film that is more of an experience than it is a traditional three act story. It’s a film that, much like There Will Be Blood, has the feel of a grand American epic. Being filmed in 70mm (which is rarely seen nowadays), it is epic in scope, yet deeply intimate. It is a commonly misunderstood film; many dismissing it as aimless, overly drawn out and ultimately pointless. I recall feeling a bit confused myself upon it’s initial release. Being mesmerized by the quality of filmmaking displayed, I instantly had a gut feeling this would be a film that simply needed time to digest as well as further acquire to its unique rhythm.
It’s truly one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. It’s overwhelmingly magical, sad and bittersweet all at once. It’s a film that brings every element of cinema to such a high level that it leaves one in complete awe by the powerful filmmaking at display. Paul Thomas Anderson is a completely unique and impactful filmmaker who never gives less than everything to create the highest quality cinematic experience possible. Whatever he wants to communicate to his audience, it’s always done in such a special and fulfilling fashion. P.T. Anderson is a man who’s brain is constantly cooking and he knows how to articulate his over the top mind and darkly optimistic vision to cinema so naturally.
The cinematography is wildly breathtaking. As it’s set in post WWII 1950, it is spot on at capturing what I imagine 1950 looked and felt like. Although the period piece is more of a backdrop as opposed to the core focus of the characters, it’s immediately worth mentioning just how mesmerizing 1950 looks and feels here. It has what one could describe as a nostalgic lens of the world at this time. Every single shot and scene is made with pure dedication and passion.
One of the main complaints this film receives is the way it’s paced. There are plenty of moments where seemingly nothing relevant happens. While I can easily see how people would think that and wouldn’t even necessarily disagree, I personally feel this flow is entirely necessary as it serves a purpose towards diving into the aimless nature of Freddie Quell. It’s paced in a meditative fashion where every moment is intended to be absorbed, rather than fully understood. Besides, the entire film is so mesmerizingly beautiful and effortlessly engaging that it’s hard to imagine it being told in any other way.
Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely awesome here. I mean in every way. He gives a level of dedication that you only see in a film once every few years or so. It is reminiscent of the kind of roles Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were playing back in the 1970s. He just completely loses himself into the character of Freddie Quell and physically transformed himself to match his fractured, animalistic soul. There are so many subtleties to his facial expressions and body posture. For example, notice the manner in which his lips quiver at random moments. It’s a special moment of an actor adding all kinds of specific quirks purely for the character. What really gets me about the talent of Phoenix is that he can transform his body in so many ways. He also did a complete body transformation in Joker, but in a way that can’t be traced to Freddie Quell in the slightest. It’s unfathomable how he does it.
Phoenix bounces off the equally mesmerizing Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who plays charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd. I believe this to be Hoffman’s definitive role as an actor. As Freddie is an aimless drifter free to do as he pleases, Lancaster Dodd is a charismatic and fully confined cult leader. His natural ability to charm makes it easy to see how he would gather a following. Dodd is brainwashing people but members of The Cause buy into it because he comes off so convincing and inviting.
The interactions between Quell and Dodd make up the primary soul of the film. What we have are two characters who are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum as far as their roles in the world. The manner in which the two characters bounce off each other is simply mesmerizing and is pure electricity. They love each other at times and despise each other at others. But ultimately, they both yearn to be like each other. Freddie is a free spirited animal who deep down seeks acceptance and purpose in his life. Yet he’s way too animalistic and chaotic by nature. He desires a community to belong to. Meanwhile, Dodd is confined by so many roles and titles in life, yet he yearns to have the freedom of Freddie. As many ways as the film can be interpreted, I personally take this dynamic to perhaps be one of seeking balance. I feel it communicates a message of not letting ourselves become too free nor too confined.
Throughout the story, we observe the natural state of man through Freddie Quell and his yearning for a sense of community and acceptance. Through Quell’s journey with The Cause, he never shows remote interest in what The Cause is about but rather just enjoys that he’s part of something. Meanwhile, it’s increasingly clear that Dodd is making everything up as he goes. Whenever he is challenged for what he thinks, he loses his cool and snaps. He doesn’t merely discuss his philosophies but immediately feels attacked whenever he is questioned. He is a man who has confined himself and his role in society so much that he deep down yearns to be a free spirit and like Freddie.
I feel that The Master is up there as one of the most profound and immersive films of the decade. A film that communicates directly to the soul as a lover of filmmaking possibilities and as a human being.