Paul Thomas Anderson is a directors’ director, who, for the past fifteen years or so has been writing and directing the films he wants to make. These films don’t comply with a specific genre and this is what makes his films so polarising amongst viewers. Many of his previous films offer narrative driven stories and conclusions that have audiences scratching their heads and this tradition continues with his newest film, The Master. Has Anderson now toned down his own style thanks to a massive increase in budget from The Weinstein Company or does his acclaim allow him to continue with what he knows best?
Starring a returning Joaquin Phoenix and a regular collaborator of Anderson’s, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master is an interesting portrayal of human submissiveness and group paranoia. Naval Veteran and now sex-obsessed drifter, Freddie Quell (Phoenix) after returning from the war with post traumatic stress disorder, is uncertain of his future, this is until he is tempted by The Cause and its charismatic leader, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).
It is the interaction and relationship between these two characters that’s at the heart of the film, which at the same time also has you questioning the mental states of both characters. Through Hoffman’s unsettling but subtle role as a cult leader, it is his character who always has the mental edge over Phoenix’s Quell. When the camera is on Hoffman he exudes impressive confidence, but underneath this exterior is an unsettling and manipulative performance which will have you squirming in your seat. Phoenix on the other hand plays his hooch-swilling role with a Marlon Brando-esque broodiness, which at any point could crack into a fist fight – it really is nice to see him back on form. However, it is Amy Adams’ performance in particular which really caught my attention. Breaking out of her ‘nice girl’ persona, she plays Dodd’s devoted wife. Hoffman’s character is manipulated and twisted by Adams’ hard no nonsense exterior so much, you get the sense that she calls the shots; an out of character performance to which acclaim should be lauded. Few directors can get performances from actors this brilliant and Paul Thomas Anderson is one of them.
From a directorial standpoint, the film looks beautiful: everything from landscape shots to simple dialogue sequences jump right off the screen and this is indebted to the cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr. and Anderson’s use of celluloid film and not digital. The score is chilling, offsetting and obvious in a good way, matching the mood and strange nature of the events unfolding on the screen. However, this strange mood coupled with the films low-narrative drive makes The Master one of Anderson’s least accessible films, so for newcomers and even for fans the film will split opinion.
What The Master does offer however are fantastic central performances from the cast, an incredibly interesting look into group, family-like behaviour and the paranoia involved with that, but most of all, mental health – most specifically the mental health of troops after World War II. This is not Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film by any stretch and it will have people walking out of cinemas, but I myself left the cinema baffled as well as impressed, my expectations met.
The Master (2012), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment Film Distributors, Certificate 15.