The post-War western world in the late 1940s is so often universally presented as a time of prosperity and opportunity. And yet filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's (PTA) The Master is a chilling portrait of a man (Freddie Quell - Joaquin Phoenix) irrevocably damaged by war being preyed upon by the leader of 'The Cause' (Lancaster Dodd - Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The Master is less the 'Scientology Exposed' film that it’s being billed as and instead an illumination that the collective wounded populace of a war torn country are more susceptible to exploitation by opportunistic and morally devoid jackals. Once these two individuals enter each other’s orbit there’s a mutually assured symbiosis and destruction.
The Master features two of the year’s best performances and possibly two of the best performances that this reviewer has ever witnessed. Hoffman is already recognised as operating on a different plain of existence than his contemporaries and yet it's a special actor that can imbue a manipulative snake with the necessary hypnotic allure to totally draw you in to absurd non-science. Phoenix ceases to exist and Freddie Quell lives and breathes. If doubters only remember his last totally immersive misunderstood method performance in director, Casey Affleck's I’m Still Here, he'll stagger you with his surrender to this mentally and physically contorted soul.
PTA brings grandeur to the decay by shooting with breathtaking 65mm film; – which gives the film an epic, crisp look of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia. There's a striking sublimity to the beauty that abounds in the naturally timeless locales or the quaint 1940s locals that veils the darkness informing the characters. He cultivates an environment and crafts a script that allows actors to deliver incredible performances.
Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood provides a score that mesmerises. It's cradling the on screen action and adding an entirely different dimension to your reception. It's indescribably necessary; for score geeks it 'feels' like it interacts with the film like Bernard Hermann's Taxi Driver score did.
Minor gripes with The Master are the economy of the film. In some moments it’s so devastatingly necessary to agonise over each second; however with a two and a half hour running time it felt like some scenes needed trimming.
The Master is drags you through the dark flux of a destructive man’s clash with a man hell bent on manipulating his universe. It’s powerful cinema in every regard.
[rating=4] and a half stars
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.