There are few directors that make mesmerising films about absolutely nothing like Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s for this reason that it’s very difficult to describe exactly what The Master it’s about. But at the same time, there are no hidden meanings. There’s nothing to “get”. Everything is laid out for the audience to interpret. It’s like a good novel. And just like a novel, you are tempted to revisit it every now and then.
The Master is probably the most novelistic film of the year, that never really breaks away from one man’s imagination. It doesn’t really reach a climax like a traditional film either, more of a breaking point. With Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) we have just two men trying to make sense of a world still only just managing to recover from the horrors of World War II. And they discover that there is no real master, just two sides to a very complex coin. And both sides are looking for answers, even if they don’t quite know what the question is.
Naval veteran Freddie Quell arrives back home in America after fighting in the WWII. He’s very unsettled and doesn’t really know what his future is, so he just stumbles around for a while waiting for something to happen. Then he meets Lancaster Dodd, known for a large part of the film as the master in question. He’s the charismatic leader of The Cause, a rather interesting sect that Freddie becomes tantalised with.
Joaquin Phoenix brings a superb edge to the character of Freddie Quell. It’s like he’s read his lines, noted what emotion or reaction is needed, and shuffled them. It’s not entirely a work of genius, but for the most part Phoenix is totally unreadable, and is the unlikeliest of heroes. For people who find this king of storytelling dull, Phoenix’s performance should be able to keep their attention. We really do have no idea how he’s going to act from scene to scene.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is really the biggest surprise here as Lancaster Dodd. He shows a new side to him that we haven’t really seen in his previous work. He’s funny, charming, and enthusiastic. When Dodd and Freddie are together, you can feel a real clash of egos. It’s a tension that really drives the film. There is more than a gentle hint that Lancaster feels a little emasculated by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). She’s very tough and business-like. There are many occasions when it seems if anyone can be described as a master, it’s her.
This is one of the real beauties of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Each scene is left wide open for the audience to interpret. It certainly will be a great film for audience’s to talk about, partly because of the presentation of Dodd’s cult The Cause. It looks and sounds like Scientology, and Anderson thinks that’s okay. He’s intelligent enough to admit that while many of it’s activities are unorthodox, or even illegal, it does work for some and that’s good enough for him. He certainly doesn’t paint Dodd as some maniac, or Freddie a brainwashed innocent. Anderson thinks if you want to come to that conclusion, you should reach it yourself.
While The Master is a film open to many forms of interpretation, that doesn’t mean that it can’t have a big impact. Some scenes are so memorable and powerful that they will stay with the audience for a long time after they leave the cinema. Dodd and Freddie continue to collide with each other, possibly because they’re trying to cope with an inconvenient truth; it really is impossible to recover from the past.
It’s naturally being tipped for Oscar glory, and deservedly so, if only the audience saw it that why. When it opened in the US it was met with a rather mixed response, with some people probably feeling a little alienated by Paul Thomas Anderson’s style of storytelling. The conclusion of the film certainly disappoint some people expecting a crescendo. Never the less, The Master is poetic, beautifully made, and is the boldest movie to come out of the US in 2012.
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