Friday, September 21, 2012

A Reel Review: THE MASTER

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER, his first film since THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), may be his most difficult work to analyze, dissect, and make heads-or-tails out of. It is thematic with many layers, not always clear on its message, lesson, and more importantly, its story. Upon viewing, audiences will either walk out hailing Anderson’s genius or scratching their heads wondering what they just witnessed.
Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II Navy veteran, returns home from the war unsettled and violent. Turning into an alcoholic and a sex-maniac, he stumbles into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who are at the head of their own “religion”, referred to as The Cause.

THE MASTER is ultimately Freddie’s story as he tries to find inner peace after his trails during the war. His search for peace gets more complex as he falls into the eager and waiting arms of Dodd, and here it becomes a battle for Freddie’s soul. Dodd greedily wants to save Freddie’s soul for the benefit of himself and The Cause, while Freddie just wants to be himself; even though he has no idea who or what that person really is. Dodd’s “religion”, while very much a part of the film, doesn’t take things over and instead serves as an overall antagonist for the characters to react with and against.
THE MASTER excels when things focus on the relationship between Freddie and Dodd, a relationship which evolves into a Master and his Dog. Dodd takes Freddie in as stray, trains him with repetition, scolds him when he misbehaves, and calls after him when he runs off. Freddie in turn very much plays the role of the canine; he loyally defends his master, runs away when off the leash, and even bites the hand that feeds him. It is a powerful theme that runs the course of the film.

As fascinating as it is to watch the characters play a mental and spiritual chess game with each other, THE MASTER can be a frustrating watch for many. While it is beautifully shot (stunningly amazing. The best you’ll ever see), the story feels like it takes a long time to unravel, with many sequences and scenes feeling cut short and incomplete. It’s not until long after the credits roll that you can being putting all the pieces together. By far, this is not a film for the non-thinker.
The acting in THE MASTER is nothing short of outstanding. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a fiery performance and Amy Adams is downright captivating. As good as they are the film absolutely belongs to a resurrected Joaquin Phoenix, who gives the performance of his lifetime and quite possibly the decade. He vanishes into the role with his acting; physically contorting his face in ways that doesn’t even look like him, and when he is in frame you cannot peel your eyes away. It is memorizing and powerful, and in the scenes where Phoenix faces-off with Hoffman, it might as well be Brando vs. Brando.

In the end THE MASTER probably stands as Paul Thomas Anderson’s least accessible work, as it almost feels more thematic than a narrative, and again, takes some thought to put all the pieces and events together. There is still a lot to love and adore about THE MASTER with its astounding acting and breathtaking cinematography. This is a unique film with a classic and timeless feel, although most of the world probably won’t give it that credit until decades pass.



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