Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love) makes films which are many things, but more times than not one of the many words used to describe said films is ‘hypnotic’. The Master is no different. Anderson continues to display his ability to create scenes that flow into each other in such a way that regardless of how dialogue heavy his films are or how long they are you can almost never tell when they stop or end or find yourself staring at your watch wondering about your time spent.
Coming out of this screening of The Master there was talk from certain members of the audience of this film being ‘empty’. This point may feel valid at first but the truth is that there’s so much happening in the film to process that you can miss the point completely. A lot of the finesse of the film is disguised by the wonderfully kinetic style of filmmaking that Anderson is known for.
The question one has to ask yourself when watching this film is: what’s the difference between religion and cult, and which does Lancaster Dodd’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) teachings fall under? Religion is mainly based on the ideal of belief; it proposed morals and ideals to live by with the underlying belief that complying with them will serve a greater purpose. Cult on the other hand serves only the purpose of a group, or in some cases one man, to provide that source with some benefit. It’s obvious then, and the film actually says it out loud, that Lancaster’s teachings are that more of a cult than religion. While he states its teachings are there to serve more than just him it is actually the ideal of justifying his own opinions on life and the world.
The Master manages to hold its audience in a constant daze as we continually linger in moments of character. When Lancaster first meets Freddie (Joaquin Pheonix) and they discuss his ‘potion’ which contains ‘secrets’ it’s mesmerizing. While the film doesn’t land any Frank T. J. Mackey or Daniel Plainview level monologues that will be quoted for the next decade it does contain so many memorable moments of beautiful storytelling. From when we see Freddie’s montage (or as best as PTA can do a montage) of failed attempts at living a normal life after the war to his attempt to comply to Lancaster’s teachings with a test of describing a wall and a window repeatedly we are able to see a character’s true nature of frustration. Freddie is an alcoholic, but why is the question that’s never answered. The film proposes an odd relationship between Freddie and Lancaster. Lancaster is fascinated by Freddie and believes he can help him and while it seems that Freddie is very interested in Lancaster and his teachings we never believe that Freddie is completely sold on them. He continually wants to believe in Lancaster’s teachings but he’s unable to actually deify him.
The performances in this film are stunning. Looking past the obvious turn outs from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Pheonix; Amy Adams and Jesse Plemons give brilliant supporting performances in the film. Adams serves the role of supportive, but stern, wife well. At times you believe that Lancaster receives all of his strength and will to create this system of belief from Peggy (Amy Adams). On the other hand Val (Jesse Plemons) does well to serve as a counter point to Peggy. While not openly against the movement he has no stake in it and remains skeptical. The character allows for interesting notes between him and Freddie as Freddie continually pushes others to believe and not question the words of Lancaster, even though he doesn’t truly believe.
Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) delivers some of the most original tones to film that we’ve heard all year. The film, being about Freddie’s search for belief, is complimented by Greenwood’s strange sense of constant displacement from normalcy. A track will begin with a feel of pieces missing and as the scene (and track) reveals more and more about itself the score will fill in those blanks but then will eventually veer off again into being displaced again to help keep Freddie’s journey as lost as it ever is.
The Master is the masterpiece film that TIFF was searching for and pleased to be found. PTA remains an unblemished filmmaker and not many can say that about themselves in this business.