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Zimbio Review - 'The Master,' A Laborious, Ultimately Fulfilling Experience

(The Weinstein Co. | Getty Images)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

The performances alone warrant your attention, but the subtle grace with which Anderson tackles the subject of religion and the kinds of people it attracts is at once compelling and admirable.
Shoulders haunched, his face twisted as if in perpetual pain, Freddie Quell has just been diagnosed with a mental disorder and set loose in the aftermath of WWII. In Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, the past is the equation and the answer is the present. As the world transitions from wartime, a generation transitions with it, searching for answers: jobs, companionship, religion, anything to give life meaning. For some, these answers are predestined, but for others, for Freddie Quell, there are no answers. There is today and there is the past.

Anderson's sixth feature may not be his best, but it's his most meaningful. Rarely are films so wrought with allusive symbolism and thematic struggle. In his simple story of friendship and deception, Anderson has created an allegory for the American way of life.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a demanding physical performance as Freddie Quell that is at once repulsive and undoubtedly profound. Released from the Navy, Freddie reacts like an uncaged animal, drunkenly humping a sand sculpture on the beach before furiously masturbating while others swim and sunbathe around him. Phoenix is fearless in the role, but audiences will find him unlikable, which tells us how little writer/director Anderson cares about making a commercial film, and thank God for that.

Freddie's a drunk, perfecting a dangerous bathtub gin recipe he swills with reckless abandon. Because he's a drunk, he forgets. "Lets just see if we can't help you remember what happened," a Naval doctor tells him before his mentally ill diagnosis. If his past can reveal the truth about his nature, Freddie is unaware but he's not uninterested.

After stowing away on a ship after losing another job, Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic intellectual who wins the young man over by complimenting his moonshine and offering him a job on his boat on its way to New York. Dodd is the leader of a small fringe group called "the Cause" and soon, Freddie submits himself to a series of questions, called "processing," which uses repetition to recall old memories and deep desires in order to cleanse the mind of evil impulses.

It's processing that most aptly recalls Scientology's auditing system and Dodd who recalls L. Ron Hubbard. Long before its release, The Master was rumored to be an evisceration of Scientology and there are obvious parallels: the time period, Dodd's background as a writer and thinker, and the supposed healing powers of the Cause. However, the subtle hints with which Anderson paces the film (Dodd's son is a non-believer) and Dodd's stubbornness in the face of one skeptic who questions his veracity, evoking the term "cult" at one point, do more to paint the leader as a charlatan than a blatant cinematic cross-examination ever could.

The Cause dissects the past of its followers but it also lays claims on the future. Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), conducts her own test of Freddie in one mesmerizing scene. "I want you to place something in the future for yourself that you would like to have. It's there, waiting for you." The assurance of relief from the burden of the past and the promise of a bright tomorrow speaks to the kind of ideals sought by people who might be tantalized by such easy answers.

At the center are the film's two thrilling performances by Phoenix and Hoffman. They share scene after scene of fascinating exchanges. The processing exchange alone is fantastic enough, but they also wrestle on the front lawn in juvenile bliss, and are incarcerated in neighboring cells after both are arrested. "Just say something that's true!" Freddie screams at Dodd. Their complicated relationship is the real reason to see the film. Phoenix and his twisted take on a troubled soul and Hoffman's articulate, seductively charming turn as the Master himself should both be awards season contenders.

As in his other movies, Anderson has created a character study above all else. Dodd sees a unique challenge in Freddie and Freddie sees a man who can give his life direction and meaning. Post WWII America was fertile soil for men like Dodd, hyper-intelligent and predatory, looking to capitalize on the lost and innocent. Conversely, men like Freddie were looking for answers and The Master conveys these ideas methodically. By doing so, Anderson touches on a universal truth about human nature. Like A Clockwork Orange, or Citizen Kane, The Master is proof art can teach us something about life itself.

However that realization is not there for the taking. Anderson doesn't give anything away easy, and audiences at large will likely find the film a challenge. His fans, however, and film enthusiasts everywhere will revel in The Master's weighty innuendos and deft artistic method.

The film resolves itself ambiguously which serves as both an indictment of those seeking resolution and a metaphor for everything which has preceded it. The Master is very much a classic American film, quiet and understated, with a mysterious score from Jonny Greenwood that punctuates the eerie tone of the film. As in There Will Be Blood, the score is its own character, hovering above the film while the action happens beneath it.

Accompanying its great performances is a crackling romantic undercurrent that has become an almost organic part of Anderson's films. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare's Panavision 65mm lens surveys every scene with artful finesse. We find Freddie quietly at rest in the crow's nest on his battleship while seamen hustle below on deck; we see Dodd's ship leaving port in San Francisco and passing under the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; and, one revelatory shot Anderson uses multiple times in the film: A bird's eye view of a ship's wake, steady and contemplative, a symbolic nod to the film's interest in the past.

It's not Anderson's stories that set him apart as one of the best filmmakers in the world, it's his dedication to the shot, the painstaking effort within every frame, calculated, proficient, and beautifully rendered. The Master is professional, awesome filmmaking.

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