The Master
The Master
The Master is a fever dream of paranoia and claustrophobia. The edges of the frame hold the viewer down and force us into a narrative that is engrossing and disturbing in equal parts. Paul Thomas Anderson's film follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed WWII veteran as he falls under the influence of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of The Cause, a thinly veiled stand-in for Scientology and thus Dodd for L. Ron Hubbard. Both Phoenix and Hoffman provide the film with its frightening forcefulness, a result of their razor-sharp performances, turning the film into a gorgeous dance when it isn't a harrowing battle for control. Phoenix's voice cuts through the heavy silences of his scenes with a bourbon soaked growl, his face flits between roughish smile and deadly scowl, masking the violence that bubbles below the surface of every frame. Hoffman's performance is no less unsettling, no less compelling. His command of a room, his complete certainty in his increasingly erratic methods, can be felt in every taught motion, every unblinking stare. Amy Adams proves that she too can be something other than charming as Dodd's true believer of a wife. Paul Thomas Anderson weaves these characters in such a way that we know almost every dark secret of their lives and yet always feel disconnected from them as they feel increasingly disconnected from the world.

The movie opens on the wake of a boat churning through vibrant blue waters, revealing Quell at the end of Word War Two being evaluated for a nervous disorder. Quell is unable to contain his impulses, his urges towards alcohol, horribly strong stuff he makes himself, and his urge towards violence, aggression, and isolation. He drunkenly stumbles upon Hoffman and his family on a boat headed towards New York. The jovial Dodd takes the, "scoundrel" Quell under his wing, his, "protégé and guinea pig," and processes him, asking him a series of questions and busting the man's past and psyche open in the storeroom of the boat, a glass of the bootleg liquor between them. This outpouring is an acting tour de force, a duel between two strong personalities, yet one that yields little in the way of answers or healing.

Quell takes to the role of follower with something bordering on religious zeal, expressed through violent defense of his new-found guru. Dodd offers solutions and is undaunted by their failure. Repetition is his weapon and the maddening montages of his attempts at healing through inane or revolutionary tasks (its impossible to tell) push Quell and the audience to the edge.
The score works to this end, building up in discordant march, atonal, classical, beautiful and disturbing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (who also composed the score for Anderson's last film, the brilliant There Will Be Blood) lends this film an ethereal quality that raises goose bumps for from nearly the first minute to the last.

Shot in 65mm, this is a film that harkens back to a forgotten era, and seems most prominently to recall Citizen Kane, perhaps never more explicitly than in Hoffman's performance, which is downright Wellesian and harkens back to his portrayal of Kane. Like Kane this movie is a look into the enigmatic character of a powerful man through cinematic proxie. Like Kane it wants to understand that man, and his flaws, his aims, his hopes, and failures. This is a film that promises some profound answers, though perhaps not those offered by Dodd. The characters search for answers to life's origin, to suffering, to the reason for being. The film itself searches instead for answers to the mysteries of Dodd and Quell. Unlike Kane, which finally offered up those answers, The Master is not forthcoming. The film's resolution isn't cathartic, it isn't complete, the answers to how Dodd is able to wrap people in his spell, to his own measure of belief, to the reasons for, or solutions to, Quell's psychosis remain out there in the sea of the narrative somewhere. The spell of the movie, like the power of Dodd, is in the end incredibly hard to identify but undeniable, and our trust in its answers may be misplaced. Realizing this may be the best we can hope for.

Grade: A-
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