I truly believe Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest filmmaker working today. As film lovers, we need to recognize the fact that we live in the era of Anderson, and know that we are in the presence of a cinematic genius. Even though I have watched all of his films no less than three times each, I still find something new and effortlessly wonderful in each of them. It is like watching them with new eyes, indicating a rare sense of beauty and narrative genius within these films. One of his more divisive films was The Master, a film that has a very special place in my heart, and one that I consider to be Anderson’s misunderstood masterpiece.
The Master is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s – Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a war veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who has a fierce temper and an alcohol problem, as well as rampant sexual desires. These culminate in his inability to keep a solid job, as he is completely unreliable and actually incredibly dangerous in his violent outbursts and penchant for alcohol made out of paint thinner, which we know probably kills at least one person. In a drunken haze, he finds himself on a boat commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic and mysterious leader of a religious organization known as The Cause. Dodd takes Freddie as his right-hand man, and shoves him deep into the sinister organization, where Freddie finds himself brainwashed. The film tracks the growing friendship between the two men, culminating in a final encounter that leaves me nearly in tears every time with its furious intensity.
The Master is led by two men who I can say, without any shadow of a doubt, are the greatest actors of their generation. There is just no one that comes close to Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The moment Paul Thomas Anderson cast these two in The Master, the world knew that this film would be nothing short of incredible in terms of performances. The chemistry between the two men is absolutely dazzling, and they play off each other’s remarkable talents. Very rarely has there been such a furious display of raw, intense chemistry between two performers as there was here. The Master is built on this remarkable chemistry, and while there is an abundance of incredible aspects of The Master, this film would not have come close to being as great as it was if Phoenix and Hoffman didn’t give the commited performances that they did.
However, we also should isolate the performances from one another, because despite The Master being a two-hander of a film, it only succeeds because both actors create unique characters, which are a combination of their versatile talents and the singular vision of Paul Thomas Anderson. Phoenix gives probably his finest performance ever as Freddie, a man disturbed by the war. We don’t see the war – this film begins at the end of the war. However, the effects remain and Freddie is highly influenced by the cruelty that he experienced. However, he is still far from being a likable character, and even though he is the protagonist, he is still not a very good person. Phoenix plays Freddie with a combination of vulgar violence, childish vulnerability and sardonic sarcasm. The way Phoenix carries himself, and the smallest physical and non-verbal nuances of his performance contribute to his creation of a shockingly real character. He is nothing like Phoenix has ever played before, and while Phoenix has played dark characters before, none of them ever go as far as being as demented as Freddie Quell, who is probably Anderson’s greatest cinematic creation, other than Daniel Plainview (if we can really consider him a wholly original character).
We can argue that Quell is a completely original character, and to create such a character is an achievement. However, what Paul Thomas Anderson did in creating Lancaster Dodd, a character so clearly inspired by a real-life figure, is also nothing short of amazing. Honestly, Philip Seymour Hoffman is my favorite actor of all time. The manner in which he ascended from character actor to bona fide leading man is one of the true miracles of cinema, and it couldn’t have happened to anyone more talented. It is absolutely true that Hoffman owed so much of his successes to Anderson, appearing in five out of the six films Anderson made when Hoffman was still with us. Their collaborations reached an apex in intensity with The Master, which saw Hoffman giving a career-best performance. Honestly, Hoffman was just utterly incredible. He was beyond brilliant. He gave a performance that was both unwatchable in how intense and powerful it was, but also at the same time, alluring and seductive enough in its complexity to draw us in and prevent us from looking away. Hoffman was a true treasure of cinema, and the fact that he is gone is a complete tragedy, but he did leave behind a legacy of incredible performances, which The Master is just one out of over a dozen examples of why Hoffman was one of the greatest who ever lived.
The Master has a sizable supporting cast, and while it isn’t as grand in scope as some of Anderson’s other films, it is populated by commited and interesting performances that dare inhabit the same zone as the lead performances of this film. Amy Adams gives a truly wonderful performance as Dodd’s supportive but also slightly sinister wife, and while Adams is without a doubt a leading lady star in cinema, she is someone who has the ability to play true supporting roles. I thought she was wonderful here, and despite not being as present as I thought she’d be, she amazed me with how complex her character was, and how she was developed in the limited space she was given. Jesse Plemons is wonderful as Hoffman’s conflicted son, and it is wonderful to see Rami Malek in a film before his ascent to stardom in Mr. Robot. The iconic and always wonderful Laura Dern proves herself to be a welcome presence by having a small but pivotal role as a follower and friend of The Cause.
One thing strikes me about The Master right from the outset, every single time I watch it – this is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen in my life. Anderson clearly has a knack for creating films as equal in grandeur visually and creatively as his stories. The opening scene of The Master, where Phoenix is on a boat going across the sea, leaves me breathless – and the constant returns to the ocean throughout this film are beautiful beyond words. Yet The Master doesn’t have quite the same grandeur and epic scale as There Will Be Blood, but it is as equally beautiful. The entire first hour of The Master takes place almost entirely on boats – cramped, claustrophobic and small. Yet it still looks beautiful. Then the rest of the film navigates various locations – upper-class houses, city locations and deserts – and the production design and cinematography is complemented by the fact that this film was shot on 65mm film, something very rare, and which gave The Master its distinctive and unbelievably gorgeous aesthetic appearance.
The visuals do take a backseat to the complex narrative of this film – and anyone who dares question Paul Thomas Anderson’s credibility as a cinematic genius needs to watch The Master. This film is an unbelievably complex one – it is mysterious and confusing and complicated beyond compare. It is not a surrealist film, but it does bear the same qualities of leaving a lot up to the viewer. We are told to interpret and come to our own understanding of what this film means. Nothing is explicitly laid out for us. Yet it never confuses us too much, because the narrative is so clear in its intentions, it is impossible to get too lost on what we are seeing.
Even though it isn’t stated, The Master is clearly a film based on Scientology. Lancaster Dodd is so obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard, and this was the entire intention of the film. I won’t comment on Scientology as a whole, because that isn’t my place – but I will say that this was the best way to approach the subject – an original and fictional film that takes its inspiration from the formation of the organization. A factual film about the creation of the organization would not have been this interesting, and to merely base it on the organization gave Anderson free-reign to craft a scathing commentary, not only on that particular organization, but on society as a whole, and our tendency to believe anything, as long as someone convicingly makes their case.
The Master is a challenging film. It was always going to be a divisive piece of cinema. It is not an easy film to process, and it leaves the audience slightly confused and very shaken. That is the precise beauty of The Master – it never gives in to the idea that the audience needs to enjoy the film – it is certainly a rivetting and fascinating film and I love it, but for many others, I can see why they admire the film, despite finding it difficult. Obviously it is not challenging to the point of being incoherent, but rather a complicated journey into various themes – mental illness, religous organizations, post-war society and decay of the human condition – all themes that tend to be a bit heavy-handed, yet handled so wonderfully here.
The Master is a masterpiece. It is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the 21st century. How is it possible that Paul Thomas Anderson creates so many masterpieces? I truly adore him as a filmmaker, and the fact that he created something as magnificent as The Master and it isn’t even his best film speaks to his true and utter talent. I will continue to sing his praises as long as I live, and The Master is one of his very best. Complex, beautiful and emotionally and mentally destructive, it is everything a great film should be. It is a masterpiece of modern filmmaking, worth it for the raw chemistry between its leads, its scathing social commentary and the fact that you will rarely find such a beautifully-made film.
Please watch this film – it is worth every second. I’ve seen it so many times now, and it just seems even better every single time. I think calling this a mere masterpiece is a bit of an understatement, but believe me, if there is a film that embodies everything that cinema should strive to be, it is The Master.