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(Quick aside before I begin this review proper. Because I want to write this review the right way because boy does it deserve it. But man, I don’t know what it is, but this particular 50 film set I’m working on has been loaded with some truly excellent films. For the first time ever, I will have given away 5 A+’s (Glengarry Glen RossChinatown, The Godfather: Part II, Undefeated, and this review in one 50 film block and I’m only at movie #30. I can go months and months without giving that score away. I once went six months where I was blogging regularly without it happening a single time. But, apparently the blog gods favor me right now.)

Cinema is the ultimate modern art-form. Rarely do we hear about modern artists (i.e. painters, sculpters, etc) who have captured the public zeitgeist with a stunning creation. The next great American novel only comes around once a decade. The David Foster Wallace’s and Jonathan Franzen’s of the world are few and far between. Truly important pieces of music are crafted every year, but the great records are usually far enough removed from the mainstream that they don’t begin to pierce the public consciousness. No, it is Hollywood and the independent houses that craft the most important and enduring modern art form, and Paul Thomas Anderson is one of its most important players.

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Though he is practically deified in serious film circles, P.T. Anderson’s name recognition is more likely to come from his small though remarkable body of work than any mainstream awareness. He burst onto the scene with the hip, stylish, and razor-smart porn-life drama Boogie Nights which was as much a satire of the greed and narcissism of the 1980s as it was a look into the life of adult cinema. Magnolia continued to cement his status as a talent to be reckoned with, but it was his magnum opus There Will Be Blood that created the cult of P.T. Anderson alongside the legendary performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. 2012’s The Master has proven to be more controversial and less widely-acclaimed than his past features, but in my mind, it is arguably the director’s most interesting and enigmatic work yet.

This review is going to be lengthy. Prepare yourself for that now. In a way similar to Thomas Pynchon in the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, P.T. Anderson shows almost no regard for the conventions of cinema and instead has an almost instinctual understanding of the foundations of movie-making and how to put them together in intellectually fresh and visually exciting ways. Obsessed with character, Paul Thomas Anderson sets aside plot and universal themes and turns his films into excruciatingly in-depth character studies and complex philosophical inquiries into our most base and harmful desires. There Will Be Blood remains the ultimate cinematic treatise on greed and unchecked ambition. The Master turns its eyes to our very notions of self, power, and our own self-satisfaction.

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After World War II, Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) wanders driftlessly from job-to-job with no real purpose and no common companions except for his debilitating reliance on alcohol. A sex-obsessed loner with no tolerance for authority, Freddy’s got a one-way ticket to either the loony bin or jail, and after nearly killing a migrant farmer who drinks some of Freddy’s toxic, self-made booze, Freddy is forced to go on the run. And though the film doesn’t make it especially clear how long he’s been wandering, Freddy sneaks onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Synecdoche, New York‘s Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his life is changed forever.

Lancaster Dodd is the founder and spiritual leader of a new religion known as “The Cause” which bears more than a few similarities to the early days of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard (but more on that shortly). Along with his wife Peggy (The Fighter‘s Amy Adams) and his children, Dodd leads a nomadic life roaming from town to town, chased by the law, creditors, and ex-wives. The Cause centers primarily on a form of alternative psychotherapy, and when Freddy winds up on Dodd’s boat, both men have their lives transformed by the other. In Dodd, Quell finds a father figure and an authority figure that doesn’t give up on him despite his shortcomings. And in Freddy, Dodd finds a man who is seemingly impervious to the self-improvement that Dodd peddles.

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Much like There Will Be Blood, The Master is not a plot-driven film. It is perhaps even a less character-driven film than There Will Be Blood because by the film’s end, both Dodd and Quell are left in states not dissimilar to where they began. Let me rephrase that, The Master is exceptionally character-driven. Dodd and Quell are breathtakingly realized creations. They simply do not evolve although a point the film tries to make is that Freddy is perhaps beyond evolution and it is what Dodd finds so attractive in him. The Master is ultimately most concerned with presenting its themes of the relationships between fathers and sons (though figuratively in this case), masters and students, those who hold power and those who don’t, and the own delusions we feed ourselves in order to find any meaning in our lives.

Paul Thomas Anderson seems very drawn to men of almost mythic stature, but whose power and reach may very well only be in their own head. He crafts great but horrible men, and Lancaster Dodd is one of his most compelling figures yet. Though many in Dodd’s family and inner circle recognize that he’s just making “The Cause” up as he goes along, the sheer force of Dodd’s personality draws in rabid believers who seek to attribute any significance to their pain and existence. And though his whole charade is simple hypnotism and parlor tricks, the actual relief Dodd provides through his “Processing” (I really don’t know how the Church of Scientology didn’t sue the shit out of P.T. Anderson) is enough to keep the desperate coming back for more. But, beneath it all, Dodd is as sad, lonely, and doubtful as those he tries to cure.

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And if any character in the Western canon of cinema defies pat characterization, it’s Freddie Quell. On one level, he is almost animalistic in his urges. His need for sex and companionship are pathological to the point of clinical obsession. He acts in erratic, self-destructive ways though also possesses an innate instinct for self-preservation. As a man living in a constant state of self-deceit, he knows a sham artist when he sees one, but through Dodd, he still manages to find just a small enough grain of truth to find someone to latch on to. His hedonism is a form of self-abuse, and while all of his actions have their own twisted logic, Freddie remains a loose cannon whose every move could destroy not only his world but also Dodd’s as well.

The Master was the first film shot entirely in 70 mm film in over ten years, and if you know what that statements means (and have seen any of P.T. Anderson’s previous works), you can take a guess as to how good-looking this film is. There is a surrealistic, flickering quality to the movie that taps into the murky, tenuous emotions holding the film together. Roger Ebert complained that there was nothing to grasp onto in this film at the end of the day. I disagree, but the film is intentionally ethereal, not only thematically but visually as well. And much like There Will Be Blood, The Master takes risks on long, unbroken shots that demand the viewer’s utmost attention. The Master is a film that practically dares its viewers to blink for fear of missing even a second of its countless gorgeous shots.

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The performances in the film were incendiary and the definition of fearless and risk-taking. I am still yet to see Lincoln, but I (who believes that Daniel Day-Lewis is the world’s greatest living actor) find it hard to believe that Day-Lewis could have provided a more stunning performance as Abe Lincoln that Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quells in this film. With a stunted gait, a hunched over figure, and a constant air of deep, physical sickness, even when Freddie wasn’t saying anything, it was difficult to look at him, but Joaquin Phoenix found such deep wells of rage and furor against Freddie’s own impotency that his performance in this film should become a textbook example of how to play a man at the brink of despair and ruin. It matches Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas as man on the edge of oblivion.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman shows again and again why he is the most interesting and consistently under-appreciated actor of his peer group as the cult-leader Dodd. As well-written as Dodd is, the movie wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a man with a strong enough emotional gravity to suck the other characters (and the audience) in with his flim-flam games, and Philip Seymour Hoffman achieves that and more. Yet, we also see Dodd’s need for control, his inability to handle criticism, and his own brief panics of doubt when left alone without others to remind him of his greatness. I am unsure if any other actor around could have carried this part half as well as Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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The film is brilliant in a way that no other film I’ve seen from 2012 has matched so far. It reaches higher and digs deeper than any newer film I’ve watched since The Tree of Life. I could populate this entire review with little moments and anecdotes from and about the film although one particular moment sticks with me even now. Freddie has just joined Dodd’s ship and Dodd finally has Freddie undergo “processing’ (which is the therapy program the Cause employs). And just by having Freddie answer questions and not blink, P.T. Anderson and Lancaster Dodd dig deeper into the soul of one character in a single scene than most films can find over their entire length.

And though I am about to give The Master the absolute highest marks that Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari awards, my recommendation for this film comes with some serious caveats. This is not a film about Scientology and/or cults generally. Though I found the thematic and character content of the film mesmerizing, it moves at an intentionally slow-pace to build this world. And so why I may be declaring this as the best film from 2012 I’ve watched so far (though I’m yet to see many of the Best Picture nominees), know ahead of time that you need to enjoy these types of film to garner even the slightest pleasure from this film. But if you have the patience and energy to give The Master the attention it deserves, you will be rewarded with what was easily one of the most ambitious and compelling films of this decade.

Final Score: A+

 

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