The Master is the highly anticipated new film from ambitious American writer, co-producer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood). A grandiose achievement in almost every sense, The Master is a film that some will understandably find cold, contentious and frustrating. But for this reviewer, an admirer of all of Anderson’s previous films, within this evocative work of vibrant cinematic vision is a film that will offer rewards for inquisitive filmgoers for a long time to come. Not easily forgotten, it is a dark and haunting storm that stirs emotions, offers up individual moments that will leave a viewer in awe and through its explored themes, leaves a percolating concoction of contemplation and admiration.

At the fore of this story is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in his first screen role since I’m Still Here), a World War II Navy veteran who is struggling to adjust to a post-war society. A gaunt, sickly-looking alcoholic with a bent back and a limp, emotionally and physically Freddie is a mess. He bounces between jobs – a portrait photographer and a vegetable farmer – and is consistently under the influence of toxic concoctions that are clearly unsafe to drink. He then stumbles onto a pleasure boat in San Francisco where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the leader (‘master’) of a philosophical movement known as The Cause. He sees something in Freddie, perhaps recognizing himself and relating to his personal struggles, and after accepting him into the movement as a patient and disciple, begins to exert his influence.

The Master is a dual study of character – one a man who is clinging to a purpose in life and something he is passionate about and believes in, the other an alcoholic, hotheaded drifter who has nothing and believes in nothing.

There are evident similarities between The Master and There will Be Blood, and this is especially notable in the use of episodes to introduce the films’ central characters. We also witness the rise and fall of a man (Planview and Dodd) so blinded by a desire for influence and reward and an eternal sense of purpose, that he all-but denies and rejects the follies of his quest. Just like Plainview, covered in oil and silhouetted against the raging fire as he stares into his burning and billowing creation, Dodd recognises opportunity and personal gain in the form of Quell – a man he learns is incurable despite the sense of conviction with which he preaches his hope to his disciples.

Anderson is clearly interested in pitting big ideas against one another, ideas that burrow into the psyche of the United States. The Master, set in the 1950’s – at time when spiritual movements began to start - delves into post-war disillusionment and the one man who believes he has the answers to the nation’s desire for happiness and purpose, while the mask he wears crediting his own begins to slip away.

Every frame of this film is intelligently considered and decorated with Anderson’s distinctive lengthy takes, and striking lensing. Shot on 65mm film it looks gorgeous. I have no doubt that seeing it projected in the desired 70mm format would further enhance one’s appreciation. Johnny Greenwood returns to supply another score for Anderson (following his contribution to There Will Be Blood) and it is another marvelous work of eerie and discordant energy.

The performances are astonishing, and it is hard to find enough words to praise Phoenix in a role where he completely transforms himself. Hoffman and Amy Adams, who portrays Lancaster’s wife Peggy, are also at the top of their game. There is not a single sequence, when neither Phoenix nor Hoffman are on screen, and their acting alone ensures The Master is engrossing viewing.

This bracing, gripping, exhausting and often puzzling cinematic experience tells, with the greatest of assurance, a pair of tremendous character studies with an enveloping backdrop of American post-war disillusionment and the guises of alternative religion. Intelligently conceived, strikingly composed and expertly performed, The Master is a landmark film from a true auteur of the cinema. It will provoke thought from a serious and observant audience and like Anderson’s preceding films, will spark debate amongst film connoisseurs for many years to come.

[rating=5]

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams

The Master is released in Australia on the 8th of November 2012.