At its surface, The Master is a tale of a war veteran and a religious leader who fights to save his soul. In that aspect The Master is a well acted and interestingly shot film. Yet it ultimately feels like the journey that the film takes to conclude that story is overwrought. Luckily, in the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson (his first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood), there is something hiding underneath the surface of this film.
There is no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson (who both wrote and directed this film) could have included everything that he did here in a much shorter time span (and the film does suffer from pacing issues in the second half), but you have to admire the lengths that Anderson goes to in order to tell his story. Every single scene seems so meticulous in every manner (from the script to the exact placement of the camera). While many of the characters Anderson creates leave much to be desired in terms of characterization, he makes up for it by bringing in his usual flair to distract you from the film’s problems. This is easily the most gorgeously shot film of the year. The way the waves move. The smallness of a human way off in the distance. A dark and claustrophobic cabin giving way to an intense confrontation. Even without explosions or people dressed in silly costumes, this is the most visually appealing film of the year.
However, the heart and soul of this film is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell (the film’s lead). Many still question what actually happened with Phoenix’s last appearance on the big screen (I’m Still Here), but after this film it is undeniable that this a man of considerable talent. As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance for the ages. Everything about Freddie (from the way he talks to all of his creepy mannerisms) is interesting, and that is all due to Phoenix. Just imagine if Marlon Brando was combined with Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining, and that is what you get from Phoenix in this film.
Not completely overshadowed by Phoenix are two strong performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman as the master (but maybe not the eponymous master) and Amy Adams as his wife. Hoffman’s performance suffers a bit in the beginning of the film as his character is an enigma and all of his screen time is opposite Joaquin Phoenix. However, as we get into the character, another hallmark Hoffman performance emerges. Meanwhile, Amy Adams has a terribly written character. It is really difficult trying to figure out what her character’s purpose is in the film. However, that does not discredit Adams strong performance. Despite being so infuriating to think about once the film is finished, it is impossible to take your eyes off of Adams’ character when she actually is onscreen. Adams presents herself as an equal to Phoenix and Hoffman, and that is a true accomplishment.
It might take multiple viewings of The Master to even come close to finding out what that something is that is hiding beneath the film’s surface. For some, they may never find it. For all we know, this film is supposed to be a literal Rorschach test that demands that you make your own answer or else adopt the ideas of others and become enslaved to your own “master”.
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