Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who thrives on being pensive. This, unfortunately, tends to clash with his directorial style. His stories often feel like twigs strewn across a body of water, loosely tied together by vague ideas and tangential connections. Sometimes that underlying body of water is a puddle, shallow and superficial, while at other times it is an ocean, rife with meaning and forethought. When it is the former, many (myself included) find it hard to enjoy his work. But I am happy to say that The Master is certainly the latter, making for a compelling and powerful study of human nature. Specifically, it investigates the need every human being has to serve some sort of higher power – deities, cultural leaders, bosses, whatever – and how that ultimately restricts our fundamental freedoms.
From the stunning cinematography to the pitch-perfect writing, The Master is a visual and aural treat. At the very onset of the film, we are exposed to brightly lit scenery that follows with an off-beat white and blue motif. This, paired with an appropriately bouncy period-esque soundtrack, gives us the constant feeling of being out at sea, lost in the vastness of the ocean: in much the same way, it would seem, as our protagonist Freddie Quell.
Complementing the aesthetic value, every bit of the acting in The Master is positively electric. Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance I’ve scene so far this year as Freddie, tearing up every seen he’s in with a polar hybrid of understated rage and charming quaintness. Philip Seymour Hoffman also gives it his all as Lancaster Dodd (or Master, as his followers refer to him) – one moment a lovable storyteller, the next a fountain of unbridled fury. Between them is Amy Adams, a cold devotee wife to Dodd who is wary of newcomer Freddy Quell.
What is most immediately striking about The Master, however, is its sense of humor. Anderson’s other dramas, There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, did of course have their moments of morbidly depressing comedy – but here we laugh much more regularly and without any real pretense of pain or suffering. While there are very few nod-and-wink sequences, much of the dialogue catches us so off-guard that we can’t help but smile; my audience had grins plastered on during the entire film.
The Master does run a bit long in its third act, the full film coming to almost two and a quarter hours, but complaining about pacing in a Paul Thomas Anderson film is like complaining that there’s too much action in a Michael Bay production. Moreover, the director’s oddities don’t actually affect the tone or the emotion of the movie. The final message might have been wrapped up a bit tighter, but it’s more of an ending than Anderson usually gives, and for that we should all be very grateful.
The Master is not a complicated film, but it does pose powerful, introspective questions that it asks us to answer on an individual basis. Unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s empty rhetoric as the Master, these ideas might actually help us become better human beings. And for those of us who have trouble with Paul Thomas Anderson’s slow-burn style, rest assured there’s enough here to keep you engaged. If you take the time to think about what’s happening as it happens, I am confident that the movie’s rich content will thoroughly nourish your soul.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on 70 mm – I did not have the chance to see this film in 70 mm as it was intended. So while I felt the framing was absolutely impeccable in a more standard format, I imagine with the full breadth of the 70 mm film the movie is even more spectacular. I encourage you to see The Master in that format if you are able.
A Note on Understanding The Master – Who is the Master, exactly? What is going on in Freddie’s mind? The Master is, as I said, not an overly complex film. But it does invite discussion, and as such you can look forward to an in-depth analysis of the film in the coming weeks.