Review: 'The Master' Has Brilliant Visuals in Narrowly Flawed Story
by Jeremy Kirk
September 14, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson, for the most part, has always appeared in control of his career. Whether it's his screenplays, the intricate detailing of his direction, or the years between projects, he gives an impression of someone who tells stories he wants to tell and creates them as immaculately as he can. The Master is no exception with nearly five years between it and There Will Be Blood, but Anderson's latest is a grand spectacle of world-building, a feast for the eyes, oftentimes distracting you from the chops found in the narrative. The strokes are broad and beautiful, and a few bristles that fall out of place almost go unnoticed.
The story is easy to tell. A man can't find his way to fit in with society. A group takes him in. Good and bad ensue, and lies and betrayals reveal themselves. Simple enough. But Anderson's story of Freddie Quell, a World War II-era "able-bodied seaman" with a knack for taking jokes past that comfort point, is much richer than its structure, one the writer/director used to great extent in his break-out, Boogie Nights. Anderson sets tones with his scenes, builds an atmosphere through space, acting, and sound. The tone he lays on heavy right from the beginning is that of discomfort. The Master and There Will Be Blood could be the start of a new genre Anderson has created called Discomfort, and Freddie Quell could rank right at the top of this genre's mascot list.
Freddie wants to fit in somewhere, anywhere, after he returns from the war, all with less than thrilling results. Even when the man tries to do good, his brashness and social awkwardness - Yes, you could even say quite a bit of ignorance is at play - end up turning the group against him. He's lost at sea, so to speak, and his prayers are answered when he meets Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd, like Anderson, is a man who appears in control, a science fiction novelist who has created a religious organization, The Cause. At first, Freddie feels welcomed in the group, slipping quickly into something of a Master's Pet to Dodd. It isn't long before Freddie discovers The Cause may not have the answers he's looking for, and Dodd may not be the man he appears to be.
Anderson's writing is full of so much depth, so richly textured, that it doesn't need the cavalcade of characters he injected into his earlier works. It isn't that The Master is more focused than Boogie Nights or Magnolia, just a different way of telling a story and getting across a feeling. And while The Master's discomfort continues creeping in with Joaquin Phoenix's every breath or the jarring tones from the Jonny Greenwood score, it's also littered with extravagant shots, multiples layers of a shot that serve as his actors' stages. Anderson filmed The Master in 70mm, something you can read more about right here, and extra space in each frame is absolutely noticed.
Whether it's a fracas in a department store, characters walking along a pier, or riding motorcycles in the desert, Anderson controls every shot, almost daring you to turn your nose at it. It's no surprise that The Master is a film that knows it's a masterpiece. Few recent films wear the title as proudly, but Terrence Malick might have something in the running. It doesn't matter how high of a pedestal The Master puts itself. It earns every bit of recognition it can get when it comes to visual magnificence.
All the while, these pretty pictures are telling a captivating story of two men always trying to appear as if they're in control. One clearly has the upper hand on the other, an aspect that's all too obvious at certain points, but it's just as entertaining watching Quell lose control as it is watching Dodd maintain it. There are varying degrees of both, both actors holding a firm grip of where their respective character is supposed to be in the power game at any given moment. Dodd loses it now and again, and it's moments here and there that let Hoffman's scenery chewing work its magic. One particular point where he drops an expletive may be the funniest laugh Anderson has ever filmed.
Phoenix is the showy performance, Hoffman the more subdued, and while their characters fluctuate in the story, the actors throw out everything they need to for their performances. Phoenix's Quell is a disgusting man, that creep who sits in the corner who lobs fruit at people who annoy him at parties. He's the favorite among the Master's "friends," so no one questions him, but no one can stand him. Essentially playing Salacious Crumb in certain scenes, the actor oozes discomfort, rarely letting you get to a point where you like him but always wanting to observe him more.
Hoffman, on the flip-side, is a rock, dignified in so many ways and to such an extent that the moments where his true self shine through are almost jarring. Anderson lets Hoffman play with the part when he can. A sequence in a jail cell has Phoenix at white heat with Hoffman standing comfortably at a nice repose. You see the twitches, though, something the 70mm aspect surely brings out, and you wait for the man to explode. When he does, it's a glorious shower of screaming and absurdity and more misplaced F-bombs than you can count. Both actors are at their peak at this moment, but any one of a dozen other sequences could easily fill in.
Anderson seems so infatuated with Quell and Dodd, these two opposite forces who want the same thing from life, that he shortchanges the other characters, particularly Amy Adams as Lancaster's wife, Peggy. She springs up only a few times in the film, mostly serving as set dressing, but there's something more Anderson is hinting at with her, a deeper layer to The Master that would have saved the back half of the film from its nearly repetitive nature. Adams is amazing as always, casting fear right out of a performance that is demanding to a certain point. She's never fully utilized, though, and Anderson does his film a huge disservice by not pulling the trigger on that particular gun.
It isn't enough to knock The Master off completely. It's still a magnificently shot film with two incredibly fascinating characters, and it's interesting to wonder about how closely the events lay alongside their real-world counterpart, L. Ron Hubbard and the creation of Scientology. Anderson has stated that The Master isn't about Scientology, but something like it. We're left to guess at the details, but what extraordinary details they are to witness. The Master is next-level filmmaking in need of a more monumental screenplay, and hopefully somewhere down the line Anderson will find the control to master them both. Until then, we'll just settle for greatness.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10