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We Were Movie Gangsters

Star of the Month Monday: The Master

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“Man is not an animal,” proclaims the charismatic, seemingly placid Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a movement dubbed ‘The Cause’, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic achievement.

But animal is what Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) seems to be. He is a bundle of loose ends, boiling rage and animal urges. After much wandering, Freddie is eventually drawn into Dodd’s Cause, attracted to the safety it seems to offer. Dodd (to his followers, the ‘Master’) and Quell become fast friends in spite of their vast differences, Quell filling the role of protege and right hand man after Dodd takes him under his wing. Both men are mysteries that The Master delves to the core of in a long, engrossing character study.

Freddie, an incomplete, animal-like being, is filled with rage, lust, and loneliness that drive him to brew chemical cocktails and get it on with a lady sculpted from sand. Freddie’s drive for sex and violence is fierce, with an underlying inability to connect emotionally with a real woman–it cuts back continually to scenes of his sand lady, as well as the extremely young and naive Love of His Life–and control his fury. Under Dodd’s wing, Freddie is, from time to time, temporarily subdued, but never mastered. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that he was not made to be mastered–the question is if he can learn to be his own master.

“If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master,” says Dodd to Freddie, “be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.”

Upon its release back in the fall of 2012, The Master earned some criticism for being lengthy, slow, and devoid of a solid, linear plot. I disagree, though. The Master is engrossing and contains some of the absolute best acting this side of the century. Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime. If nothing else, watch it for the acting.

Parts of it play out like a comedy, in the same way that Daniel Plainview’s “I drink your milkshake” rant never fails to make me laugh out loud, in spite of the overall tension of the scene and Daniel Day-Lewis’s powerful acting. The Master is filled with some similar weird, twisted humor that elicited nervous laughter from the little crowd of five in my theater when I saw it back in October.

Though very different, The Master possesses many of the elements that make There Will Be Blood so good, such as outstanding performances on all parts, gorgeous cinematography filled with rich colors, the incomparable direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, raw emotion and energy, and a chilling score by Jonny Greenwood. Shot on 65mm film, the look of the film alone is spectacular. The blue of that sea is too pretty for words.

The film is also notable for Joaquin Phoenix’s return to film. Phoenix is back, and better than ever. I’m not only overjoyed to see him again, but to see him again giving such an incredible performance. Convincing and animal-like, thin and hunching, handsome and brutish as Quell, Phoenix makes the character explode off the screen. Don’t ever leave me like that again, Joaquin.

Phoenix wasn’t the only one who gave a masterful performance, though: Philip Seymour Hoffman played Dodd with quiet intensity, and Amy Adams shone as his hard, icy wife.

Much as I love me some DDL, I have to say that Joaquin Phoenix deserved an Oscar for this film. I was torn throughout the entire awards season, because Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix are both my favorite actors of all time. I wasn’t sad that DDL won, but… Joaquin :( I’m less torn about my thoughts on Amy Adams’ loss, though. My blood is still boiling about Anne Hathaway’s win, but I’m going to stop there before this gets ugly. Don’t even get me started on the Academy completely snubbing Paul Thomas Anderson. I can only hope for Oscars for all three soon.

For me, The Master was one of those rare films that dramatically heightened my love and understanding of film, and gave me an even greater appreciation for the work of Paul Thomas Anderson (if you haven’t watched Boogie Nights, every day you go without watching Boogie Nights is a waste). Thoughts of The Master rolled through my brain for weeks afterwards, and continued to distract me as I tried to unravel the many mysteries it contains. It’s a great, powerful film with great acting. Not one I’m likely to forget about anytime soon, even if I wanted to.

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