‘The Master’ is Delightfully Dense

September 26, 2012

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I won’t pretend I understood The Master. I can’t tell you exactly what it was about, and I’m not sure I would recommend it to most people. But when I left the theater, I knew I had just watched a work of immense genius.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master is a story of male bonding of a different sort. Alcoholic, sex-crazed WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is taken in by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a mystical, scientology-like cult known as The Cause. The men first bond over Freddie’s paint thinner cocktails. As they grow closer, Dodd subjects Freddie to a series of bizarre psychological tests of his own creation. While Dodd delves deeper into Freddie’s psyche, he is simultaneously promoting The Cause and preaching his word around the country. Along the way there is a prison stint, abandonments via motorcycle, attempted reconnections with old lovers, and several beatings; however, in this  film, the majority of the action takes place internally.

The lead characters are played with frightening, crackling intensity by Phoenix and Hoffman in what are sure to be Oscar-nominated performances. Hoffman’s turn is one of greater balance and deft. Phoenix is positively unsettling, enveloping himself in the disturbing character and threatening to explode at any second in a fit of violent frustration. There’s his mumbling, half-drunk manner of speech, his lurching, bent-over gait, and his expression that betrays a different confused emotion each second: every aspect of Freddie is haunted by an unshakable post-war trauma that almost seems left over from Phoenix’s last film, the quasi-documentary I’m Not There. Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife and Jesse Plemons as Dodd’s doubtful son also turn in solid efforts.

The Master scene

Joaquin Phoenix at sea. | Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Though all of Anderson’s work is visually and aurally excellent, The Master’s technical mastery matches the brilliance of its lead performances at every turn. Shot in the more visually detailed 65 mm film format, every frame seems fussed-over and carefully thought out. Even if you aren’t sure what is happening, you can admire what you are seeing on the screen. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood composed the score, incorporating a mix of his own spindly, fidgety compositions with oldie classics that take on a new layer of meaning when underscoring the film. It’s hard to describe quite how every aspect of the movie adds up to create its dizzying, uncomfortable atmosphere.

The film’s themes are familiar for fans of Anderson: the struggle and corruption of power and maintaining it, the preying upon the weak by religion, alcoholism, post-war malaise, and countless more that I’m sure I missed. Every scene of The Master is a beast of a different sort, but ultimately it gets frustrating making the connections between them. Some people feel that the film builds up an incredible premise only to run out of steam over the last half hour, squandering its potential to be an all-time great.

Watching The Master can give you the sense that you are constantly missing something or that you are not fully grasping what you are seeing. Days after viewing the movie, I have realized that some scenes were hallucinations or flashbacks—and I had no idea at the time. Yet I’m torn between the feeling that I’m missing something and that there was nothing more to get. It is easy to be enraptured by the beautiful imagery and powerhouse performances, but what does it all add up to? Is it the fault of Anderson or the audience that we aren’t entirely sure?

Though it may seem impenetrable and intimidating, The Master possesses an ambition and virtuosity that is entirely lacking in most cinematic experiences today. It is a film that enters your mind and stays there long after you have left the theater, and although it demands multiple viewings to even begin to get a hold of it, I can say with certainty that every single viewing will be worth it.