An intricately layered character study, a fascinating take on religious cult, and an intriguing portrait of teacher-disciple relationship, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an acquired taste that won’t appeal to every viewer out there, and while it benefits from its spectacular performances & technically stunning production, the entire narrative is also marred by its convoluted plot.
The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell, a sex-obsessed alcoholic & World War II veteran who’s having a hard time readjusting to his former life after the end of war until he stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a philosophical movement who accepts him as his protégé. The two are instantly enamoured by each other and develop a special bond as time progresses.
Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film opens on a sublime note with some breathtaking imagery followed by excellent introduction of its characters who are instantly captivating but then around the halfway mark, it deviates from its path, heads into an unfamiliar territory, becomes increasingly complex & difficult to follow, and ends on a rather uninteresting note.
While the cult preaching portion of the screenplay bears resemblance to Scientology, The Master is much more than that, for it aims to capture the utter ridiculousness of every belief system out there and succeeds quite wonderfully. Yet the best thing about the script remains its richly detailed & multi-dimensional characters who unlike the plot, remain enthralling until the very end.
Production design team nicely recreates the 1950s environment while costumes, make-up & hairstyling add more authenticity to it. Shot almost entirely on 65mm print, the images are sharp to look at & incredibly detailed while its camera placement, steadicam shots & other movements are worthy of a mention. Editing provides a very relaxed pace but is clumsy on few occasions while Jonny Greenwood’s score is equally incoherent.
Coming to the performances, The Master features a stunning cast in Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman & Amy Adams, and the trio delivers one of the finest works of their careers in this film. Adams does not have that much of a presence here but she does well with whatever screen time is provided to her while Hoffman is effortlessly charming in the role of Lancaster Dodd.
However, it’s Joaquin Phoenix who ends up stealing the show with a tour-de-force input as his portrait of the alcoholic drifter in post-war America is jaw-dropping, heartbreaking & haunting at the same time and whether it’s Freddie Quell’s posture, walking style, sickly appearance or enraged emotions, Phoenix manages to nail every single aspect of his character with remarkable effectiveness.
On an overall scale, The Master is an audacious piece of filmmaking from one of the most gifted filmmakers of our time that does many things right but ultimately suffers due to its inefficacious storytelling & lack of proper resolution. Destined to garner a cult following, this arthouse feature is at its best when the screen is shared by a disciple who is lost and a charming leader who claims to have all the answers. Multiple viewings advised.