Review — “The Master”

Paul Thomas Anderson is not known for making easy pictures. Even his most accessible film, “Boogie Nights,” finds its way into tough character dynamics, questions of conscience, and outsider morality. “The Master” runs in a similar vein. The protagonists are fractured, odd, funny, disturbing at times, subject to powerful inner forces and paranoid machinations. Yet rather than build us a standard character arc, Anderson dives headfirst into his characters’ bizarre psyches, leaving us to chew over both beginnings and ends for the multifaceted many that populate this film.

“The Master” opens on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran and a drunk. Freddie takes work wherever he can find it: picking lettuce on a farm, shooting portraits at the department store, both of which fuel his passion for alcohol and the concocting of household-ingredient cocktails. When he stows aboard a ship one drunken night, he awakens to meet the titular Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a genius of many fields who finds himself taken with Freddie for reasons unknown. As the story progresses, Freddie finds himself enraptured by Master and his burgeoning philosophical movement, The Cause, which many believe to be a cult.

PTA has always had an eye for detail that sets him above his average contemporaries. As usual, his shots are framed with delicacy and elegance, creating a story world that pulls us in visually as much as it does psychologically.

But what really distinguishes “The Master” is its characterization. Here PTA has crafted some of his most difficult and intriguing characters yet, characters with whom we find it hard to sympathize at times, characters who can be downright unlikable; but even without that lack of self-identification we are still curious as to their motives, their desires, their ambitions. Anderson’s nose for characterization has always been a defining feature, and with a narrowing of his focus we’re offered a wealth of nuance.

Both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman help to flesh out the intricacies, and if there’s any justice in the world we will see both men up for Best Actor come February. Phoenix is nothing short of brilliant, tender at times, psychotic at others, all the while speaking from the side of his mouth as he sweats and breathes alcohol. Hoffman provides the greatest range, fluctuating between the hyper-capable and in-control Master persona and bursts of base emotions. We’re as mesmerized by the Master as Freddie is when we first meet, but as the story progresses and Master’s philosophies come to light we find the veneer washing away.

In short, “The Master” offers some phenomenal characters, blended in expert fashion with gorgeous cinematography and virtuosic direction. Yet what is perhaps most interesting about the film is that two weeks later I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

THE MASTER

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Rated R. Photo courtesy Annapurna Pictures.

DistinguishingWikipedia: In law, to distinguish a case means to contrast the facts of the case before the court from the facts of a case of precedent where there is an apparent similarity.

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