Joshua Reviews Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master [Theatrical Review]

There are very few filmmakers whose pieces are as anticipated as those coming to us from the mind, heart and soul from director Paul Thomas Anderson. Be it his masterpiece There Will Be Blood or the film which made us all look at Adam Sandler a little differently, Punch Drunk Love, Anderson has become one of the most important, and hard to classify directors of this modern era.

Anderson’s latest film, The Master, will officially debut during this year’s fall festival slate, with screenings at both Venice and Toronto. The film has become this year’s most anticipated fall release, and for good reason. While it may very well be a confounding feature film, it’s also a brilliant, beautiful meditation on everything from love to salvation.

Originally tapped as Anderson’s ‘Scientology film,’ The Master is much more than that reductive logline.   Following the story of a troubled former seaman named Freddie Sutton who, upon his return home, begins looking for work only to encounter a man named Lancaster Dodd. A man of many interests, Dodd takes Sutton under his wings. As their relationship progresses, we learn that Dodd is the leader of a group of a faith-focused men and women, who all believe that one’s life consists of those trillions of years in the past, and will include those trillions of years in the future. Vaguely resembling the ides of the controversial faith, The Master is on the surface a look at a distinct faith, it’s more of a brilliant and paint-thinner-fueled fever dream of a film. Focusing on a man who, much like the actor portraying him, has strayed from the path in his life and is on the hunt for salvation.

For all intents and purposes, The Master is an actor’s showcase. Inherently a character study, the film relies entirely upon two performances, brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix is at his best here as Freddie, a man eerily similar in mood. Phoenix has, as is well noted, been rather eccentric over the past three or so years, often considered to have gone “crazy.” Whether that was an act or he truly went ‘crazy,’ the resemblance between life and art here is uncanny, and absolutely breathtaking. Phoenix breathes an immense deal of life and vitality to a character that could, in any other actor’s hands, become nothing more than a drunk caricature fueled by lust and anger. Imbuing the character with equal parts brood and charm, it’s impossible not to fall under the man’s spell, and it’s even less likely that you’ll be able to let him go.

However, the film thrives in the moments Phoenix shares with Hoffman. The pair have an electrifying chemistry, almost feeling like a romantic drama in some moments. Be it an emotionally charged fight about one party being the only person in the world to understand the other, or a playful tussle on the front lawn of Dodd’s compound, Hoffman is as engaging to watch on screen as Phoenix. While he may not have the same emotional heft, a sense of uncertainty the audience feels about his character is placed upon his shoulders. It is, again, the moments the two share that are the film’s strongest, particularly one interchange near the end of the first act of the film, which may very well be one of the greatest acting showcases that cinema has ever given us. It encompasses the entire film, and proves that Phoenix may very well be one of the best thespians of his generation. It’s simply one of the greatest scenes you’ll ever see.

That being said, it’s still Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. While his career has been made on blending influences from Scorsese to Malick, this may very well be the most distinctively Anderson feature Anderson has ever made.

Influenced by Terrence Malick, The Master aesthetically and intellectually plays as a distant cousin to Badlands, but with Anderson’s patented desolate frames and breathtaking use of a fluid camera. Anderson is more of an auteur than we may have expected. Shown in 70mm, the film is easily one of the most beautiful films that 2012 has to offer, pairing Anderson’s camera and frame with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, producing a film that is as lush and visually full of life as it is soft and quaint. Toss in Jonny Greenwood’s seething and often snarling score, and you have a film that blends every artistic aspect of filmmaking into a perfect piece of art.

A clear frontrunner for the Oscars in various technical and artistic categories, this is as much a visual showcase as it is an actor piece, and is as vibrant a film as you may very well see this year, or any to come.

The film isn’t without its flaws, however. While the film may clock in at two hours and some change, it doesn’t make that time go down easy. While incredibly confounding at times, the film isn’t impenetrable. With so much on its plate intellectually, it is an extremely dense and confrontational film, thematically. Taking on subjects like lost love, regret, faith, salvation and even, coincidentally, the life of its lead actor,  the film has so much on its mind that encompassed entirely within this kinetic and cartoonish fever-dream-like feature, some of it doesn’t quite hit. However, despite the ambitious size of The Master, these flaws often inspire some of the most engaging sequences of the film.

A love of cinema is embedded within The Master. At its heart, it is a film about a man, an actor in many ways, striving to find his director. The Master is gorgeous, confrontational, and absolutely brilliant. Featuring two career-defining performances from two of today’s very best actors, the film is arguably the best American feature film since Paul Thomas Anderson last hit the big screen.

Proving that he is far more than just an arthouse film enthusiast, Anderson takes all of his influences from his love for film and rolls them into a film that is mystifying and awe-inspiring. Simply put, this the best film of 2012 so far, and will be difficult to top.