James A. George, Eyewear Film Critic, on a new American Masterwork
Paul Thomas Anderson is a relatively young director but has already been labeled a pre-eminent director of his generation who equally harks back to the golden era of Hollywood as much as he progresses forward with unconventional films dealing with both ensemble casts or narrowed to only a few major players. The Master however is essentially entirely a two-shot (a dialogue between two characters) that happens to stretch out for over two hours and features contained yet powerful appearances from others, namely Amy Adams as a powerful woman-behind-the-man who is often in the background (slightly out of lens focus). Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a traumatised post-war alcoholic failing to find his anchor in society, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, his new anchor and in return The Master’s inspiration.
A work this dense and explorative should not be this easy to watch and absorb; like a cult, the movie washes over you and allows you to question and explore the themes. Like Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, Lancaster Dodd is one of the many bold visionaries that carved America into what it is now, who harnessed the freedom America offered for what I think he genuinely feels is a good cause. His teachings of “The Cause” really seem like something he intends to use to heal people, whether it is true or not. In fact the C word is only used once in the film, and the real issue is the love between Freddie and Lancaster. Where There Will Be Blood represented the dynamics of politics and religion, The Master manages to explore this and more primal instincts too. If such a society existed I imagine Freddie would run around naked, drinking and eating and humping as he pleased while The Master tries to return self-control and joy and self-awareness to his new friend so that he can exist comfortably in the real world. And yet this is the mere surface, father and son issues, issues of success and failure, dictatorship and thought and more all flow through this feature ready for the viewer to think about and unlock.
It is by no coincidence that I refer to the characters by their names rather than the actors (which I tend to) – their acting is so vivid and believable. With two monolithic actors like this one might imagine the scenes rather combative and the scenery very much completely eaten by the two powerhouses, however the balance is so cemented between them and the feelings so clear and yet upon closer inspection so opaque.
Imagine viewing a friend in love. You understand that they have deep feelings for their partner yet you do not witness their sincerest moments and despite their best efforts, your friend cannot most likely explain their connection to this person. The performances are so life like, mirroring the plot that dances around the clear ups and downs and inciting moments and climaxes, that once engaged from the opening shots you forget you’re in a movie. You’ve joined the C word.
The Master is hot-blooded filmmaking distinctive, wildly stylised and yet cooly controlled. Every brick holding together this dazzling work is superbly crafted, the tremendous score, the editing, the production and clothing and cinematography. As is key to the cult, the sense of time travel has never been stronger in a films imagery.
As it did in American cinemas, The Master is sadly going to have a quick rotation and disappear. However it is a masterpiece and the best film this year – and last year. It’s the most absorbing, utterly beautiful, and most worthy adversary for your mind. So strangely tantalising that it invaded my dreams for better and worse. Since I saw it in stunning 70mm projection (worth seeing if you ever have the rare chance to do so) not a day has passed since I’ve not read about it, listened to the soundtrack and recommended it to someone. As an aspiring filmmaker currently in the pre-production on my first feature, this film couldn’t have come at a better or worse time. Inspiring and intimidating, I’ve found myself rethinking even the most minute of details concerning my project. Thank you and damn you Paul Thomas Anderson.