First of all, before we go any further, I love movies. I’m a film geek to my core. I love the art of cinema and all the possibilities that it offers. Filmmaking is also very open to the viewers interpretation. We all see different things and can be moved by different aspects of the intended whole. What works for me, may not work for you, and vise-versa. Embarrassing example: “Moulin Rouge” brought me to tears due to it’s production design. Okay - let’s move on. Paul Thomas Anderson may be one of the most talented directors working in the American Motion Picture Industry today. He’s also not incredibly prolific. Since releasing "Hard Eight" in 1996, he’s made just five other movies: "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Magnolia" (1999), "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002), "There Will Be Blood" (2007) and now, "The Master".
There is a very telling moment on Paul Thomas Anderson’s commentary track for "Boogie Nights", where he talks about the scene where Eddie Adams and his mother have it out. In it, Eddie returns home late, having been out all evening hanging out with his new friends in the porn industry, and his mom is up waiting for him. She’s furious with the direction he’s taking his life, and the two have a heated argument, resulting in Eddie’s separation from his family and eventual transformation into adult superstar Dirk Diggler. The scene runs about three min, but feels longer because it brings a very hyper film to a sudden crawl as these two characters confront one another. In the commentary, Anderson responds to people that had a problem with the length of the scene:
“I look at the mother scene and I wish it was longer. Maybe it should have been a whole other half hour, because maybe there’s some stuff that’s very clear to me, but somehow not clear to an audience. I’d put it more about how she feels about him and where the hell she’s coming from. Maybe it’s too easy to think that she’s nuts, because she is nuts, but why is she nuts. Maybe try harder to figure that out.”
And try harder he has. In each successive film he’s made, Anderson has turned his focus more toward character study and exploration, and less about grand, epic story telling.
"The Master" is concerned with three individuals. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently discharged Navy man with more then a little post traumatic stress disorder, and a strong attraction to alcohol. Freddie, lost and smarting after a few poorly chosen jobs have gone horribly wrong, stumbles across Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a small, but growing movement known as The Cause, which has a more then passing resemblance to Scientology.
Freddie is looking for purpose, and Lancaster is looking for a guinea pig. Lancaster’s most recent wife, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) fears that Freddie is too dangerous an element to be added to an already stressful life as outside (and internal) forces conspire to bring down The Cause and it’s Master.
That’s the set up, but rather then put these characters through a series of obstacles to overcome, Anderson seems content to sit back and watch them bounce off each other. Lancaster puts Freddie through a series of “processing” exercises to calm his mind. Freddie concocts and consumes several alcoholic potions that Lancaster is partial to. Peggy struggles with keeping the fragile fabric of their reality together with mixed results, and Anderson never lets the camera waver from the raw, sometimes enchanting, sometimes ugly encounters that transpire.
Anderson has a gift for pulling extraordinary performances out of his actors. Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore in "Boogie Nights", and Tom Cruise in "Magnolia". Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his performance as the ruthless misanthrope, Daniel Plainview, in the stark and bleak "There Will Be Blood". "The Master", no exception here, is full of rich, layered and nuanced performances that rise above the bar and get under your skin.
Or rather, it got under my skin. I haven’t stopped thinking about this film since I saw it. Anderson has such a masterful command of the fabric of cinema, it’s mesmerizing to watch him weave such engrossing celluloid tapestries with apparent ease.
Technically, the film is solid. Lush cinematography and robust use of color make for a gorgeous looking film, with rapt attention paid to the films 1950’s setting.
You can look for nominations in Cinematography, Sound Design, Costume Design, Set Design, Original Screenplay, Editing, Direction and Best Picture.