While watching The Master, an extraordinary thing occurred: time, friends, plans, homework, and even reality itself became nonexistent; it didn’t matter what I was doing before the movie or what I would be doing after, from the very first frame my mind and body were at the mercy, control, and command of director Paul Thomas Anderson. If that’s not high praise, I’m not sure what is. To make a pun on the film’s title would be easy and obvious, but when a movie is this visually gorgeous, this superbly acted, and this expertly crafted, it’s hard to call it anything else other than, well, a masterpiece. With a trio of powerful performances and a legendary director at the top of his game, The Master is a major cinematic accomplishment and, as of this writing, the new best film of 2012.
Perhaps Anderson’s most emotional movie yet, The Master is the riveting character study of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran struggling with neurosis, alcoholism, satyriasis, and more. In the film’s confounding opening, we see just how disturbed Freddie is as he contemplates cutting off a finger while slicing fruit and performs dry intercourse on a blowup doll his buddies have made out of sand.
During a post-war psychological exam, Freddie is asked to explain ink blobs and responds with sexually obsessive and degrading answers; then we see the alcoholic concoctions he makes from any ingredient he can find, no matter how poisonous. And yet, these are only the foundations of Freddie’s madness, which spirals even more out of control when he drifts onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A charismatic intellect, Dodd is the founder and master of “The Cause”, a religion based on past lives, and along with his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd takes Freddie under his wing, hoping his spiritual teachings will save the damaged and deranged veteran.
Like all of P.T. Anderson’s previous masterpieces, The Master’s plot is merely a vessel for fascinating characters brought to life by tour-de-force performances. If you thought the ensemble of Moonrise Kingdom was to die for, just wait – the combination of Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams in The Master is a cinematic trio for the ages. Phoenix, in particular, shines in what is by far his best performance to date – he is simply sensational. Not since There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day Lewis or The Wrestler’s Mickey Rourke has a male performance been so jaw dropping and spellbinding. Get ready Oscar, this is the performance that demands a win.
With his nervous ticks, haggard expressions, and emaciated postures, Phoenix looses himself in the role of Freddie the way Brando lost himself playing Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now – it’s so seamless it’s damn haunting, even frightening at times. Though Freddie is certainly crazy, Phoenix wisely reveals an unnerving vulnerability (particularly in flashbacks scenes) that helps humanize the character, giving us a man who isn’t beyond the point of saving just yet. It’s this fact that makes the film so emotionally involving, for just like Dodd and Peggy, we too become obsessively fascinated with Freddie since we know there’s a part of him desperately begging for salvation. In many ways, Phoenix creates a character identical to Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker – a vile, disturbed soul that we just can’t ignore or get enough of. Every time he’s on screen, even in just quick reaction shots, Phoenix is a remarkable force that demands attention.
Equally mesmerizing are Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Both actors have always had a certain charisma that is warm, inviting, and seductive, and in the roles of Dodd and Peggy that charisma is sensationally executed; just as Freddy gets pulled into “The Cause” and blinded by the couple’s charm, we do too. Even more effective is the way the two subtly expose their characters’ imperfections. Many times, Hoffman is a commanding, authoritative presence (a “processing” scene between him and Phoenix is the most powerfully acted scene I’ve watched in quite some time), but in crucial moments, such as the seconds right before a major convention speech, he exudes a nervousness that is unsettling and adds to the ambiguity of whether or not Dodd is making everything up as he goes along. Adams, in only a handful of scenes, is a knockout too, slowly peeling back Peggy’s bubbly exterior to reveal an unexpectedly sinister core. Dodd and Peggy’s complex marriage also fuels the film’s most enthralling question – who, exactly, is The Master? I’ll let you be the judge.
Ultimately, the real master is director Paul Thomas Anderson. After sensational films like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, The Master confirms Anderson’s status as not only the best contemporary working director today but also as a true cinematic legend. Every shot in this film, be it the marvelous landscapes or the extremely vulnerable close ups, is complex, hypnotic, striking, gorgeous, and so on. With meticulous focus and framing, Anderson’s direction is mentally penetrating and leaves lasting imprints (I still can’t get the image of a Christ-like Freddie dangling over a post out of a my head). Johnny Greenwood’s unforgettable score, a hybrid of classical strings and shrill, off-sounding percussions, does the same, giving crucial scenes an unpredictable sense of menace.
Though the awards season is only beginning, The Master is already the dominative winner. When performances are this astonishing and direction this flawless, a film should be more than just an annual Oscar winner, it should be a cinematic milestone, a film that, decades from now, people return to with the same awe they had upon first viewing. Now that’s a masterpiece. That’s The Master.
Review by Zack Sharf