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Movie Review: “The Master”

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie has Joaquin Phoenix starring as a World War II veteran and alcoholic drifter who becomes the focus of a religious leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that seeks to cure the emotional traumas that eat at him.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a movie I will be thinking about for a long time now that I have seen it. Like the writer/director’s previous films, it is mesmerizing in its visual powers and features some of the most emotionally raw acting you will see in any film this decade. I think it is also intentionally meant to leave a lot of questions unanswered as the movie follows the relationship of two men; one who knows who he is and what he can do, and the other being very disturbed and completely lost in the post-war world.

“The Master” takes us back to the 1950s when World War II was coming to a close. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Navy veteran who has returned to civilian life as damaged goods and is bereft of any goals for his future. He ends up drifting from job to job, be it as a mall photographer or working as a farmer, and all the time he is mixing up some alcoholic drinks that are filled with seriously volatile ingredients. Has anyone used paint thinner when making a cocktail before in a movie? If anyone has, then please tell me because this is the first time I have seen it done.

One fateful night, Freddie sneaks aboard a fancy yacht where a big party is taking place in the hopes of finding some work. He ends up making the acquaintance of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a highly charismatic individual who is also the leader of a faith-based organization called The Cause which seeks to rid its followers of past traumas that have stunted their emotional growth. Freddie quickly falls under Lancaster’s spell and becomes a follower of the movement himself as well as a brutal defender of it. But over time, Freddie begins to wonder if what Lancaster is teaching him is actually true or if he’s just making it all up as he goes along (as his son accuses him of doing).

Anderson has gone on record in saying that the character of Lancaster Dodd was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard who is of course known for creating Scientology, that movement which Tom Cruise is a die-hard fan of. It should be made clear however that “The Master” is NOT about Scientology, so those hoping for an expose of it would do better to read those articles in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker which are making headlines.

At its heart though, “The Master” is really about Freddie Quell and Joaquin Phoenix ends up giving one of his best performances ever as this emotionally unhinged war veteran. It’s been two years since Phoenix did that crazy mockumentary “I’m Still Here” which had him retiring from acting and becoming a pathetic hip-hop artist (thank goodness that was a hoax!). It’s great to see him back as he’s always been the gutsiest of actors, and this has him at his most unpredictable. He’s an unrestrained id whenever he’s onscreen, and you can never be sure where or when he’s going to strike next.

Phoenix’s performance is the kind you want to study closely as he has so many scenes which will burn into your memory. One in particular has him beating himself up his prison cell and destroying the toilet in it, and you have to wonder how he could push himself that far. He makes Adam Sandler’s character from “Punch Drunk Love” look like a peaceful man in comparison, and Sandler trashed a whole restaurant bathroom in that one!

Hoffman ends up giving one of his very best performances here as Lancaster Dodd and, considering how endlessly brilliantly he’s been as an actor all these years, that’s saying a lot. Throughout the movie’s two hour plus running time, the actor gives us a character that is an endless enigma. Part of us may quickly want to write off Dodd and his beliefs in record time, but Hoffman makes his character’s effect over people seem all the more enthralling to experience. Even as his beliefs fall off the tracks, Hoffman keeps us fascinated by Dodd’s thought process and how he plans to keep going in the face of endless criticism.

One scene between Phoenix and Hoffman stands out in particular when Hoffman decides to do some processing on Phoenix. The razor sharp focus between these two actors is just exhilarating (not to mention exhausting) to watch as breakthroughs are made and alliances are formed. Anderson ended up using two cameras to film this scene which is the same thing Michael Mann did when he filmed that famous coffee shop scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Heat.” Seeing Phoenix and Hoffman work off of one another makes for some of the most exciting scenes I’ve seen in any movie this year. It’s even more exciting than the best car chase in any action movie released this past summer.

There’s also no forgetting Amy Adams who is phenomenal as Dodd’s wife Peggy. Adams is truly an amazing actress as her words say one thing while her eyes say something else entirely. In retrospect, Adams’ character is the strongest one in “The Master” as she has more control over her actions than any of the male characters have over their own. Just watch her as she exercises a certain part of Hoffman’s anatomy in one scene.

“The Master” features many other masterful performances from actors like Kevin J. O’Connor, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons who plays Lancaster’s son Val, Lena Endre, and Laura Dern of all people as true believer Helen. Hoffman’s response to one of Helen’s persistent questions will have your hair standing on end.

Paul Thomas Anderson continues to prove himself a defender of all things film as “The Master” is the first movie to be shot in 65/70mm since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” which came out 16 years ago. Director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. comes up with a barrage of unforgettably beautiful images (especially of the ocean) throughout the movie’s running time, and they are accompanied by another daringly original film score by Jonny Greenwood. At a time when film is being rendered obsolete for thee advances in technology, this is proof of why we need to keep it around.

“The Master” does leave a lot of questions unanswered which will frustrate many filmgoers but fascinate so many others who are willing to weave through its unusual narrative. It’s never entirely clear where these characters will end up once the movie’s over or which one we should believe in more than the other. Some will have made up their minds about that perhaps even before they go into the movie theater to watch it, but the beauty of a film like this is the effect it leaves on you after you have seen it.

As much as I try to avoid saying the following, I have to say it: “The Master” is masterful filmmaking. I know I’m not the first to say it, but I also know I won’t be the last. Paul Thomas Anderson remains as brilliant a filmmaker as ever, but that’s no surprise considering he has yet to make a movie that’s just the least bit bad.

* * * * out of * * * * 

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