Let’s face it, when going head to head with Daniel Day Lewis, playing one of America’s most loved figureheads; you clearly have your work cut out.
Award success didn’t come Joaquin Phoenix’s way this year but in any other year perhaps it might have.
What is more certain, here portraying naval veteran Freddie Quell, is that it’s very unlikely you will ever see a more disturbing and balanced portrayal of poor mental health and alcoholism.
Phoenix’s performance procures every emotion, uncomfortable to watch in awkward social interactions, pitifully childlike and unpredictable. The inebriated highs are few and the lows are constant. Freddie’s shoulder shrugging, hands on hips mannerisms are permanent, so too his crevassed face, slurred speech and glassy eyed abandon – the enduring damage caused by alcohol, not just the temporary effects of inebriation. He is a lost soul, discharged with post-traumatic stress, a prime candidate for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Cause.
The would be master, a charismatic learned man takes Freddie as his project through processing and task repetition to cure mental and physical illness through recovering memories of past selves.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s much remarked examination of scientology then? Not quite as explicit as that, the man himself has cited numerous cult origins in America that too would be worthy of celluloid scrutiny. This Cause being a cult comparable to many a post war new world religion that assimilates and guides those in need or a deceiving front for extortion, oddball ideals or something else?
Slightly taking the underdog position here, but tempering this; Anderson is an exceptional filmmaker and every one of his movies so far have been extraordinary. There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest films of any era, by any director.
Just like the shadow of DDL’s Lincoln on the unfortunate Phoenix, and in degrees of separation, Anderson’s last masterpiece looms large too.
Anderson has not quite achieved the same greatness here, even with immense technical skill, beauty and yet another shattering central act, an eye the man acutely has for placing performance and character at the heart of everything.
Often opaque and vague, The Master is forgiven for its ambiguity as it’s the expectation and true form of a remarkable director. The only clear intention that Anderson ever demonstrates is that he always leaves verdict to the beholder; this always gains him and here The Master; credit, no matter how equivocal the narrative may be. There is no doubt that it is exceptional filmmaking to allow performance to thrive, beauty to be captured and enlightenment to be self-discovered.
This then is Anderson at his most impressionistic? And in turn his most difficult piece and a struggle in the latter stages; this time discovering that enlightenment is challenging, just as it is for Freddie.
Intriguing in the introduction, seeing Freddie most pitifully move from job to job with backstory piecing together where it started to go wrong, but once seeing that Freddie is beyond repair and Hoffman’s veneer of mastery begins to crack, The Master struggles to regain its early majesty with ever increasing uncertainty. Striking though it is, those hypnotic visuals start to feel immaterial no matter how consistently beautiful; this is Anderson more than ever on his own terms, and for once it suffers as repetition sets in.
Though it is as sumptuously beautiful as what can be expected from a craftsman who has likely never framed a shot as good as here, even without long collaborating DOP Robert Elswit. A level of beauty often only reserved for Malick; but being more beautiful than ever with flawless acting doesn’t do enough to quite create another five star masterpiece for one of the great directors of his generation.
Immense acting, most brilliantly delivered by Phoenix provides yet another PTA hallmark of allowing the stage to class performers; in Hoffman’s and Phoenix’s shared initial ‘processing’ scene you will never likely see a more captivating collaboration of supreme acting.
But Hoffman mostly gives way to the more central performance of Phoenix, a showman and perhaps only the figurehead for the front. Amy Adams’ privately domineering wife is perhaps the true master of proceedings, omnipresent and perhaps more; a point that’s left open to interpretation.
Hoffman’s awkward melody for Anderson’s would be climax, offering some reasoning for his persistence in the project that is Freddie feels like an ostentatious rather than novel way of revealing latent feelings deemed inappropriate for this or any other time of extreme prejudice, whether in this life or another.
A musing recollection of a past life serves to possibly affirm the cosmic theories preached throughout and is the clearest attempt at illuminating, whether relying on belief or reality it’s a pseudo explanation.
Anderson’s final third unravels ambiguously – not unusual, in past films this has been accepted as being respectful to the audience when being intelligently aware of the message he is making, but without the crescendo of a finale seen in previous that has delivered enough on investment, too many threads are left untied or open to speculation and debate.
Should any film ever require multiple views to reach a finale that settles very little, if anything? No matter how many re-views, The Master will likely never deliver a conclusion. Depending on the point of view that could be deemed as frustrating opacity or the genius of a visionary filmmaker; Anderson is certainly that.
Supreme acting, glorious cinematography with themes too big to comprehend, even in Anderson’s world, The Master is completely enigmatic and at times totally wonderful.
What exactly The Master is about is open to theorising and conjecture (google: The Master theory) and who ‘The Master’ is remains tantalisingly unresolved. Is that the greatest credit or criticism that can be made of yet another, undeniably thought-provoking Anderson film event?
Recommended, as you will never likely see a film quite like it.