Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the director’s chair with The Master, his first film since the celebrated There Will Be Blood, almost five years ago. Fans of his previous work will likely find much to enjoy, but for those who seek traditional narrative-driven storytelling, The Master may frustrate.
The film tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a world war two veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, struggling to adjust back into society. That is until he comes across the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd, also known as the Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who befriends and promises to help him. This basic premise is used to construct an in-depth character study of all the players involved. Fortunately, these are some of the most brilliantly realised characters in recent cinema.
Freddie visibly wears his war trauma in his contorted body language and slanted face, so much so that after watching the film you may find yourself looking at past pictures of Phoenix, just to check if he’s always looked this … broken. His mannerisms and dialogue perfectly match his outward appearance, making for a truly intriguing character.
Meanwhile, Hoffman perfectly portrays the charisma and leadership of Dodd, displaying both his genuine humanness and his unsettling, controlling malevolence. That these characters are so interesting and non-transparent is testament to the great performances and writing that went into them. The relationship between the pair is central to the film and is great to watch. While they at first seem like polar opposites, the line between the two is slowly blurred as we observe the erratic behaviour of both. Periphery characters are just as well executed, with particular note to Amy Adams who plays Dodd’s chillingly faithful wife.
Another key element of the film is the extraordinary music. Jonny Greenwood returns from his work on There Will Be Blood to compose an exceptional soundtrack that almost works as character itself. It has a beautifully haunting nature, managing to be mystically alluring and unsettlingly strange at the same time. Juxtaposition between what’s happening on screen and what the audience hears often creates a disquieting feeling that there’s more to see than what meets the eye. Despite such powerful music, it never becomes overbearing, but adds to the rich texture of the great on-screen action.
The Master looks absolutely stunning throughout. There are many times during the film where you could easily take a freeze frame of the action and have an outstanding photograph. Superb use of focus and framing seamlessly directs the viewer’s attention to important minor details which may have been otherwise overlooked. The camera steadily moves and lingers through scenes, creating a constant flow throughout. The editing carefully moves from scene to scene, keeping the audience engaged in what is quite a slow-paced film. Towards the end, this slow pace does slightly start to take its toll and the film’s resolution loses some weight as a result.
So what’s not to like? The film is definitely more focused on character development than telling a cohesive narrative. Not much seems to really happen and when it does, consequences of minor plot points are often discarded in favour of focusing on the characters. For some, this and the film’s slow pace will be too off-putting, causing some to simply ask “what was the point?”
The film ultimately hinges upon its ability to draw you in to its world of extraordinary characters. Whether you buy into this or not may depend on how much you cling to the standard narrative conventions that dominate cinema today. The Master’s pre-occupation with its characters will undoubtedly split opinion, becoming both the reason some people enjoy it and others loathe it.