The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, has been one of my most anticipated movies this year. It has been out for a month now, but I only just got to see it today. I feel like the guy who missed the series finale of Seinfeld, but found somebody who taped it to finally be able to see it. Such are the benefits of living in Cedar City. And, luckily, I wasn't disappointed. The Master offers a depth one doesn't often find in movies, and is absolutely perfect in execution. It is a modern classic.
It is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed Navy veteran, and his encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of "the Cause". Quell is searching for something, and Dodd seems the one to have the answer. I don't want to go too much into plot, because it really is worth seeing everything play out on the screen. But I'll tell you now, this is probably the best film of the year so far.
This movie is worth seeing just for the performances. I haven't seen an actor wear his character quite so much as Phoenix does here. This will be an eye-opener to those of you who have only seen him as that guy who plays the emperor in Gladiator. Hoffman does just as well, and seeing them both together is a joy. Amy Adams rounds out the cast as Dodd's wife, and this is quite a different turn for her. She's not at all like the innocence her face projects.
This is a movie I don't think I'd recommend to everybody. It is a little hard to experience and to digest. Not that it is controversial. But Anderson asks quite a bit of his audience, and is no apologist. There has been lots of hype about it being "the Scientology movie" or whatever. Of course, it's not. It goes in deeper and asks some pretty serious questions about some pretty institutional things we all identify with, be it religion or love or money or government or however you want to read it. Basically, can these institutions provide what they claim to provide? Are they as interested in you as they are in themselves? How is it that it is often the very thing that draws you to something that ultimately pushes you away? The Master is a movie that makes you think, but not in the figuring out plot holes or how one can be a necessary but undeserved hero sense of the term.
Another remarkable thing (and a tribute to Anderson's writing) is that this all plays out as much in the plot as in the characters themselves. Of course things happen in the movie, but these events would not have the import they do were it not for the vibrancy of the characters he creates. Anderson's characters are not simple caricatures drawn in broad strokes and symbolic merely of motive or emotion. They are complicated and contradictory. Sometimes their motives are not quite clear. In this case they have a healthy dose of reality, and are not your typical movie characters. It is in their mixing together that the thematic elements come to light.
Like I said this movie is not for everyone. It's not one to take your girlfriend to after dinner at the Olive Garden, and not one you can rent and watch while you do homework. But it is one of the great movies of the year, make no mistake, and expect to hear about it and wonder why you didn't before come Oscars.
by Chase Harrison