Not only is Paul Thomas Anderson one of my favorite directors, but I think he’s in the conversation as one of the greatest of all-time. Just as with any extremely broad inquiry, like naming your favorite song, there are a lot of very strong competitors, but the point is that PTA is an absolute master of his work. The Master is his follow-up to 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the finest piece of filmmaking we’ve seen in quite a while. I had very high expectations for this new effort, which was receiving a lot of attention as being a sort of biopic of L. Ron Hubbard (which it is not). Like Blood, I loved the movie, but I think it will grow with repeat viewings.
The Master starts out focused on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). It becomes clear that he’s not all there right around the time that he becomes aroused by a woman made of sand. He is a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, certainly from his World War II duty, and likely in part due to a childhood rife with torment. When the war ends, he loses his job as a photographer after he drunkenly gets into a fight, and then accidentally poisons an elderly man with some moonshine he’s made. Scared, he stows away on a yacht.
The yacht, of course, belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man bubbling with so much charisma that he could probably be a successful cult leader. Dodd lets Quell stay on the yacht, so long as he is brewed more batches of moonshine.
The movie meanders onward, touching briefly on the cult and Quell’s attempts to assimilate with “The Cause”, but never going too deep into any of it. Some critics seem to take issue with this (I’m looking at you Roger Ebert, though you’d be none the wiser), but I don’t see it as an issue. The Master has an excellent story, but the stars of the movie are Anderson, Amy Adams, Hoffman and Phoenix. Each of the actors has been recognized with an Oscar nomination, and each is well-deserving. To my surprise, I think Phoenix is even more worthy of the award than Daniel Day Lewis. Anderson allowed Phoenix to improvise on set, and the actor developed Quell’s signature walk. The director said that Phoenix got into character and stayed there for three months, and it shows. The film is at its best when its two male leads use their spellbinding chemistry to flesh out the intense relationship between their characters, especially during the “processing” scenes. They are supposedly therapeutic, but on the surface look like the most agonizing lightning round question-and-answer sessions you can imagine. But don’t forget about Adams, who was often on set for scenes where she wasn’t on camera. Anderson wanted to create a feeling that she was omnipresent, and when she does get screen time, you can tell. It’s probably my favorite performance from her.
I loved the film, and I haven’t even mentioned the cinematography, and another triumphant score from Jonny Greenwood. The Master is right there with Moonrise Kingdom as my favorite movie of 2012. It demands repeat viewing. I think it’s somewhere between a 4- and 5-star film for me. So let’s compromise.