It has taken me a long time to decide what to say about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. And I still don’t even really know. It is one of those films that takes awhile to sink in. When it’s over you know you just saw something great but you also know that you’re going to have to process it for a little while, and maybe see it again. And it might also be a little annoying that it gets under your skin and doesn’t present itself as any one thing right away. It doesn’t punch you in the gut like There Will Be Blood after which I definitely had a very physical reaction. And it doesn’t have the emotional impact of Magnolia, which to me struck much more personal notes. It’s more like a slow pull on your frontal lobes by an invisible puppet master. It gets to be very intense but in an appealing, albeit confusing, way. What it boiled down to, though, was that I was utterly fascinated by these character’s behaviors. Few things are more fascinating to me than what makes a cult leader and the people who follow him. And Anderson has shown that he has an innate understanding of human behavior. I came out of the film wondering how much of what he wrote was deliberate and how much came through on a more subconscious level because it’s difficult for me to fathom anyone being able to consciously understand so much about the way people act.
I’m sure no small part of that was the interpretation by the actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix have almost magical chemistry with each other. It felt as if the coming together of these two people, who couldn’t be more different, was the most natural thing in the world. And Amy Adamsbrings a delicious subtlety to her role as Dodd’s wife. To me the implication is that she is in more control than she may appear and she plays it masterfully. Lancaster (Hoffman) and Peggy Dodd (Adams) are expert manipulators but I think the key is that they truly believe they are doing it for a greater good. They don’t believe they are arrogant and manipulative. They believe they are right and good! And Freddie Quell (Phoenix), an alcoholic veteran with PTSD is the perfect person to put their theory to the test. He’s too artless to deceive them.
He approaches them with a great deal of sincerity, but also with an inability to control himself, a recklessness that appeals to Lancaster Dodd on a base level. Anderson treats his characters with a great deal of compassion and respect. I never once felt like he was pushing an agenda or passing judgement on them. He’s simply telling an honest story about people behaving honestly within a very specific and bizarre environment, and that is what makes this film beautiful. That and the gorgeous cinematography of course, but we all knew that was going to happen… If you do get the chance to see it in 70mm, which I did, it really is overwhelmingly stunning.
Ultimately though I can’t say that I loved the film. I found it stimulating and fascinating and at times a little disturbing. I do think it is a great film, no doubt bound for a dozen Oscar nominations and most definitely worth your time. I give it four out of five nerdskulls.
Check out the trailer if you haven’t already: