20 November 2012

Review: The Master

(Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

A new Paul Thomas Anderson film is something to get excited about. Justifiably he is a writer / director loved by critics and the discerning film fan, due to his stunning visual eye, desire to tell intelligent adult stories and an ability to bring the best out of actors. But with a five year gap either side of There Will Be Blood, his last film, he’s certainly become one to take his time and leave his fans wanting with anticipation. Over the last few years I’ve become convinced that his 1999 film Magnolia is the best film of the last twenty years, if not more; a tour-de-force of storytelling, acting and how to use music. And I don’t make that claim lightly.

And so upon us arrives The Master, which sees Anderson turn his attention to a cult in the early 1950s, essentially a thinly veiled version of the early days of Scientology. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is its leader, visionary and the titular master, who with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and family, live a luxuriant life growing his ideas of routes to self discovery and improvement, never seemingly set in the same place for too long. Stumbling into their world comes Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a capricious ex sailor who somehow inspires Lancaster but worries Peggy.

Freddie is something of an enigma. He's like a teenage boy with his sexual obsession but is seemingly an alcoholic, imbibing on strange cocktails of his own creation. Is this how he placates the madness that seems to be deep in him or does this just amplify it? Phoenix’s return from career wilderness is impressive – this is his first role in four years and he’s back on form (I’m not counting I’m Still Here as that was not traditional screen acting, rather a piece of performance art which although was excellently played, only left us with a not that good two-hour physical document). The ill-fitting clothes and slightly awkward walk enhance the air of untrustworthiness surrounding Freddie, which exudes from his volatility and his lost aimlessness. Sometimes Phoenix can be so awkward to watch yet he plays characters with such skill.

Hoffman is his usual charismatic self, playing a character who conflictingly sees himself as a grandiose multi-hyphenate genius, yet also just as a simple man. He’s not really that simple a man and maybe that’s why Freddie inspires him, seeing Freddie as that part that’s lost from within himself? The control in Hoffman’s performance doesn't make Lancaster too showy or overtly powerful, thus he remains subtly intriguing. As with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, sometimes it can be a real joy watching certain actors inhabit a role.

The Master is beautifully photographed and there’s a restrained economy to its look, providing a certain austerity that makes it more evocative of the era being portrayed. The decision to shoot the majority of the film on 65mm stock only serves to further enhance its classic feel. I was lucky enough to see the film projected via 70mm, supposedly the director's projection method of choice for this film, meaning the picture quality was excellent, offering a stunning clarity and level of detail. Working alongside this is the excellent use of music - Anderson is a master at using music creatively, in order to say different things and invoke curious feelings in a manner far more effective than the standard cues most films use. This intelligent use seems to pervade all his work and so his decision to again use Johnny Greenwood as composer pays dividends.

By this point I've probably created the impression that I loved the film, right? Well, not exactly. Despite my exultance above, The Master left me a little cold. It lacks emotion and it’s impossible to care about any of the characters as none are particularly sympathetic. Freddie walks the line of intrigue and annoyance and with Lancaster you always know there’s something seemingly insidious to come in the future from all this. Yes this subject area may be interesting, but without any real connection to these characters it’s difficult to care and be anything more than just a passive observer. The problem ultimately lies with the writing (the actors are giving it their all within the confines of what they have to work with), it’s just lacking a compelling human element. After some time thinking about it I'm still wondering what the point of it all was.

On some levels The Master shows what Anderson does best – his highly attuned eyes and ears make for an aesthetically enjoyable experience, and yet again he brings out the best in his actors, with both Phoenix and Hoffman excelling in their roles (not to mention Adams who is very good too). But it's easy to be blinded by these things. At it's core The Master is missing a fundamental reason for us to care about anyone or any of what’s taking place. It feels like a bit of an empty shell, albeit a beautifully constructed one. Unfortunately it is this that holds it back from being anything more than just a decent film.

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