Certification : 15
Running Time : 144 mins
Reviewer : David Gillespie – HCF Official Artist
For anyone that was not shaken or stirred by Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the likelihood is that they are not going to find much to write home about when they sit through the two plus running time of his new project. Some have announced The Master as a ‘marmite’ film: one that you will either love or hate. Personally I hate marmite but I loved The Master. Not only is it a beautiful film to behold on the big screen but you are unlikely to see better performances in 2012.
The movie focuses on the complicated relationship between two troubled men and their mutual devotion to perfecting their passion in life. It is these passions that attract other people to them while ultimately, consuming them.
Freddie Quell (a career defining performance by Joaquin Phoenix) is a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to life outside the navy. The first quarter explores how his drinking and mental problems lead to his dismissal from his military post, photographer job and labouring position. When Freddie reaches his lowest ebb, he stumbles across the religious leader of the ‘Cause’, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd offers the ex-seaman the chance to travel with him along the east coast in return for a regular supply of his alcoholic concoctions that he produces from white spirit, lighter fluid, medicine, bread or anything that happens to be available at any given moment. Freddie is fascinated by Lancaster’s charisma and philosophical revelations. In turn, Dodd is intrigued and amused by his guest’s openness in answering his psychological questioning called ‘processing’ and his primal loyalty to him. There is also an indication that there may be a sexual attraction between the men. Other members of the cause are worried about Freddie’s unpredictable behaviour and excessive drinking. Lancaster’s sinister wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) and daughter (Ambyr Childers) voice their concerns that he could well be an informant to those that plan to bring the cause down. However influential Peggy is in Lancaster’s decisions, his bond with his impulsive ally remains strong until one family visit to the desert that does not go to plan.
Anderson’s original idea for The Master came from the rise of the cult group after the Second World War. Veterans were easy pickings for this type of organisation due to their mental vulnerability and inability to adapt socially. He has avoided claims that the film is based on the Scientology founder, L Ron Hubbard. In any case, the story revolves around Quell and not Dodd.
If visuals and sound were the defining factor in a great movie then The Master would be announced as a masterpiece. Shot in beautiful 70mm, each frame of this feature is a joy to the eyes. From a close-up of Freddie’s inebriated body sprawled across a lofty mast while his shipmates throw items his way from below to the wide scenic shots of a motorcycle ride through the desert, this is a project that has to be admired on the big screen.
The narrative is something that has been criticized by some sections of the press. There is no doubt that The Master is a gruelling, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable watch with experimental cuts and overlaps. I would suggest that it is better to use some grey matter rather than be spoon fed the material in front on you. Perhaps it could be argued that as brilliant as Joaquin Phoenix performance is, his outbursts and mutterings are often incomprehensible and abstruse. This also affects the viewer’s understanding of events and why characters react the way that they do.
The performances are outstanding with all three leads contributing their best work to date. Hoffman excels in a role that was always, according to Anderson, destined to be his. Dodd is conceited and full of his own self-importance. He uses his religious philosophy and words of wisdom to rule over others and to profit yet he too is governed by them also. In one fantastic scene, he is questioned by a dinner party guest as to the validity of confronting ones past self as a form of therapy. Rather than back up his work, he panics and regresses to name calling and anger.
Joaquin Phoenix is truly outstanding as the tortured and animalistic Quell. I would be surprised if people don’t look back in years to come and reflect on Phoenix as one of the classic character actors of his generation. From the opening scenes of his role of the ‘clown’ within the naval ranks, he embodies Freddie’s physically twisted and twitching ‘time bomb’ of a man. Sequences featuring him exploding in a spasmodic rage after being locked up or when he boils over on an unsuspecting businessman are as painfully uncomfortable to watch as they are totally enthralling.
The biggest surprise lies with Amy Adams. I have never thought much of her sweetly spoken and demure performances in the past but in the master she uses it to portray a scheming, manipulative and ambitious woman that will use any means to get what she wants. Just watch how she manages to convince her husband that he needn’t stray from home when it comes to the bedroom. When you consider that she is up against the thespian heavyweights of both Hoffman and Phoenix but never looks out of place, this certifies how well she nails her role.
Although the film does not lead to a grand finale like There will be Blood, the final image of a broken Quell is touching and satisfying. The Master is one of the few great movies of 2012.