Cinema Review: The Master

Simon Collings takes a look at The Master starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Currently on General release at UK Cinemas.

The Master is the sixth feature film from writer, director and producer Paul Thomas Anderson.  It tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a broken World War II veteran struggling to adjust back into a post-war society that seemingly doesn’t want, or understand him.  One drunken night, he stumbles across Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic leader of a philosophical movement known as ‘‘The Cause’’ who sees something in Freddie and offers to help and accepts him into the movement.  With nowhere else to go, Freddie agrees to travel with the group and spread the teachings.

From the man who brought us Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master continues a rich vain of form from one of the best filmmakers around.  Unlike these three modern classics, The Master is equally as good, but somewhat different in terms of storytelling in that it doesn’t really have a particular narrative form that moves things along steadily.  This (for people who might not know Anderson’s work) might be off-putting, as they’ll deem it too slow and not accessible enough.  However, in order to enjoy The Master one has to recognise that this is safe in the hands of a genius such as Paul Thomas Anderson.  It is a remarkable film, with remarkable performances from the two leads.

Phoenix’s crooked, bent veteran is his best performance to date, whilst Hoffman’s self-assured ‘‘leader’’ is both heart-warming and terrifying in equal measure – as moments of crazed outbursts pierce his seemingly loveable exterior.  Its subject matter of movements/cults (however you want to describe it) is both fascinating and disturbing. Post-traumatic stress disorder is commonplace for veterans but treating it, and the public’s understanding of it, is not – especially back in 1950s America.  This, therefore, allowed movements and groups at this time to flourish and develop their own methods and beliefs in how to ‘‘heal’’ people.  This element of the film seems to be somewhat inspired by life and times of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, as Hoffman’s character does strike a similar physical resemblance.

Leaving aside the film’s taboo subject matter, The Master is (for one of a better word) a master class in screen acting.  Supporting the two leads is the excellent Amy Adams as Hoffman’s wife.  She acts as both a devoted mother to their children as well as a manipulative aid for ‘‘The Cause’’ – constantly reassuring those around (and herself) that the movement is a positive, progressive one.

The whole film looks and sounds magnificent too.  There are the familiar Anderson-styled steadicam long takes, whilst a particular scene depicting Hoffman’s headquarters in England is shot and presented in such a way that it wouldn’t look out of place in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).  The music is brilliantly provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, as he continues to establish himself a sought-after soundtrack creator whose credits already include There Will Be Blood and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2010).

The film’s only downside is its slow pace and lack of development – making its 144 minutes running time seem a lot longer.  This aside, there is still a great piece of cinema here which is sure to pick up a handful of awards, as well as making it an early frontrunner for next year’s Oscars.

The Master is not going to break any box-office records – nor perhaps attract new followers to Anderson’s work.  However, for those who are familiar with his films will again marvel at filmmaker at the peak of his powers, offering up yet again a slice of cinema that is both absorbing and perfectly acted.  It is certainly a film that stays with you long after the credits have rolled, and Hoffman’s movement leader really is a uniquely terrifying creation, never before seen in cinematic history.

FMV Rating ****½

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