The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie, is going to be debated for a long time among fans of his work, and film fans in general. already it’s generating many articles and blog posts, with people loving or hating it, for a variety of reasons. I fall into the category of those who love it, but I can completely understand why people would be frustrated.
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams all give career high performances, and all three are compelling to watch. They’re brave in the way they bring to life characters who, without such talented performers willing to find these people’s humanity, are not inherently good or warm. Still, Hoffman and Adams radiate the sense that they believe in Lancaster Dodd’s “Cause.” Whether they believe in it for entirely honorable reasons is another question altogether.
Above even their great performances, though, is Joaquin Phoenix, who gives the kind of layered, primal performance Marlon Brando was known for. I found myself thinking about Brando, particularly his performance in Last Tango in Paris, several times watching as Phoenix’s Freddie Quell tears open his wounds in front of you.
The entire work is pulled together by stunning camera work and a phenomenal soundtrack, combining lush pop standards of the Forties and Fifties with Jonny Greenwood’s propulsive, jagged score. While, on the whole, The Master doesn’t match or exceed the brilliance of There Will be Blood, it certainly compares well with Anderson’s other movies and fits nicely in his body of work.
But what makes it frustrating? To begin with, what Anderson is doing to “entertain” you is giving you something to discuss and turn over for yourself. There are answers here, and everything you need to understand the arc of the Story. What message you choose to take from it can be backed up by scenes, lines, and shot selection, and by the end you definitely have all the ammunition you need to defend your side of any argument about the movie.
And that, I think is what makes The Master difficult to love. By the end there is no single valid interpretation. This is a movie constructed to be argued about, unlike The Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus. The arguments those movies inspire were mostly about whether we personally think they were successful at reaching their defined goals. Did they fit into an established mythology and did their creators meet our expectations for entertainment value? The Master, on the other hand, can’t really be discussed that way because we’re not certain what it’s intentions are. Is it an exposé of Scientology? An indictment of religion? A farce or a dead serious drama?
In the end I found the heavy lifting entirely worth it. The movie was moving, entertaining, and I look forward to pulling it apart and understanding it better. I find it fun to walk away from a piece of art still digesting what it means. In fact I intend to try seeing it again soon, with other friends to get additional perspectives. For now though, I highly recommend The Master, and look forward to reading everyone else’s thoughts about it once you’ve had a chance to see it for yourselves.