I just hopped on the Paul Thomas Anderson bandwagon this year, finally getting around to see his two best films: “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights.” I’ve seen a few of the acclaimed director’s other films, too, like “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk-Love,” but it’s been years, and I’d almost forgotten how unique his visual style is.
The way Anderson shoots his actors and scenes is just breathtaking and is enough to lead the film on it’s own. “The Master” has two major things going for it: gorgeous visuals and stunning performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It’s 1950, just after World War II. Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a drifter, a boozer and looking for his next gig post-war. As he wanders around searching for something to hold on to and drinking his gruesome homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), he stumbles across a boat where he meets the alluring Lancaster Dodd, aka The Master. Lancaster heads “The Cause,” a particular religion which is still blossoming and is eager to include the misguiding Freddie, as his newest member.
We don’t know much about “The Cause” before Freddie decides to hang around Lancaster, eventually becoming his right-hand-man. There is definitely hints of Scientology, but I think the main point Anderson is trying to make is not about religion, but about belonging. Freddie is so desperate to belong to something, anything, he’s willing to do the unbelievable to prove to Lancaster he is part of his group.
I have a feeling most people are going to walk out of “The Master,” questioning what they’ve just seen, but this is certainly a character driven film over a plot driven one. However strange and at sometimes, droll, the plot may be, Anderson shoots his movie quite perfectly, with every shot carefully composed. I love how Anderson strategically places the camera on the actor to make the audience feel like we are the one looking at him. He gives the audience a choice of where to look in each frame of the movie.
The plot is not what leads the film, its the fantastic performances by each of the actors that do. This is truly Phoenix’s film, who will no doubt be nominated for an Academy Award. He completely transforms physically and emotionally into the role as the young, drunk drifter. Hoffman, who is one of the best and most underrated actors working today, plays the role as the cult leader elegantly and smoothly. It’s the scenes where he says so little, that he is so petrifying. Adams shouldn’t get overlooked here either. Although she had so little time on-screen, she couldn’t have played the role as the cult leader’s wife more perfectly. I’d almost argue she was more threatening than Lancaster himself!
Anderson’s glowing visuals and the fantastic performances certainly make “The Master” worth watching, but it’s definitely not a film for everyone. Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams are all worthy of Academy Award nominations, especially Phoenix, the true star of the film.