Film Review: The Master


The Master is the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson and it is as magnetic and mesmerizing as anything put out in theaters this year.

You can’t look away from this film.  Long in the coming, (it’s been five years since PTA’s There Will Be Blood) The Master is a skewed take on the origins of Scientology and one man’s journey in particular through their long acceptance process.  Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, an ex-Navy man who likes to drink, make his own booze and womanize, who gets a new lease on life when he comes under the wing of The Master, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  The Master is the leader of a school of thought that transports us in and around our memories from our current life to our past ones trillions of years ago and we watch Freddie get vetted to become a part of The Cause.

The film is more of an experience rather than a plot driven narrative as we follow Freddie’s introduction to the world of The Cause.  We get to spend some amazing moments with Freddie, starting with his time in the Pacific during WWII and all the way up to his meeting with The Master. PTA is able to create this fully fleshed out and interesting character that is just endlessly interesting.  The director’s filmmaking is in top form again as he is able to tell us so much, so subtly that everything unfolds effortlessly.  The film’s opening twenty minutes or so covers about five years and while I would have loved to see even more of Freddie’s adventures during those years, PTA gives us the perfect amount for this film.  It doesn’t hurt that Joaquin Phoenix has never been better as Freddie in a performance for the ages. Phoenix becomes the character and throws everything into the part; both physically and emotionally.  The physical stuff in particular is borderline shocking as Phoenix beats himself, and the environment around him, on multiple occasions.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you about his voice though; if you thought Bane was hard to understand in The Dark Knight Rises, you aint heard nothing yet.  Phoenix’s performance is right in the running for the best so far this year and I find it hard to imagine anyone will top it.

You could make an argument I would listen to that Phoenix’s closest challenger for best performance of the year sits right across from him in The Master; Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman is almost equally as impressive as the leader of The Cause, Lancaster Dodd.  You can’t help but be sucked in by Hoffman’s performance as he has never delivered a role like this.  I love Hoffman as much as anyone and I really feel like this might be his best performance; ask me tomorrow and I might even say he was better than Phoenix.  Hoffman is exactly what PTA needs him to be and we fully buy into why people follow this guy’s message he is selling.  The speeches and crowd work Hoffman has to do is gripping and he does it all with such sincerity that we almost believe him when he spouts some of the nonsense he is selling.

It’s when you get Phoenix and Hoffman together on the screen that the fireworks fly even higher and the duo deliver some of the best scenes thrown up on the big screen.  The two’s chemistry is unmatchable and you can see them fueling each other’s performances, driving one another to take their performances higher. One scene in particular somehow stands above the many other excellent sequences in the film, which is the “processing” sequence.  Phoenix is incredible. The moment (like most of the film) feels effortlessly natural and we can see Hoffman working his magic as both Dodd and a cooperating actor, allowing Phoenix to deliver the best scene of his life.

The film is mainly a two man show, but Amy Adams doesn’t hold back in her moments to shine.  She is sweet and endearing in public as Mary Sue Dodd, but it’s the moments behind closed doors that Adams really delivers.  There is a tinge of craziness in her eyes that can’t be ignored and Adams continues to show a diverse range every opportunity she gets.  Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Kevin J. O’Connor, Rami Malek and Ambyr Childers also all do fine work as well in their limited roles, but they are regulated almost entirely to the sidelines.

Technically, the film is also astonishing and I urge you to go see this movie in 70mm if at all possible.  I am not even a film fanatic, I enjoy digital projection as much or more than film most of the time, but the image was truly fantastic projected in its native 70mm format.  You can tell PTA loves the stock and he shows it off to great effect in the opening pair of shots (along with the rest of the film) that show the brilliance and detail a great, quality 70mm projection can have.  PTA also throws in a lot of signature steady cam/extended takes and while less flashy as some of his best shots in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, they are just as impressive.  Johnny Greenwood’s score is also mesmerizing from start to finish and PTA layers it in masterfully, pulling it away and letting the actors do the work when necessary.  The period, 1945-51, is also meticulously recreated and I felt transported back in time while watching the picture.

The Master is superb at almost every turn.  There were a couple of stray moments that seemed to drag a bit, but I don’t know if that was because the scenes needed to be excised or if the rest of the film is just so damn good that we get bored when we aren’t viewing greatness.  Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best director’s of the last twenty years and he only improves his case with The Master. Phoenix and Hoffman deliver probably the best two performances of the year, possibly their individual careers, and the film is worth the price of admission alone to see them work off one another.  The Master very probably will be the best film of the year when it is all said and done, but more importantly it is another piece to treasure from Paul Thomas Anderson.

The Master is an A+

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