Monday, October 01, 2012

The Master is a Masterful Piece of Filmmaking


Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career out of telling enthralling tales about unique relationships, often but not exclusively between males, from opposite ends of the spectrum. Whether the film focuses on father and sons or unholy partnerships, Anderson has a keen eye for exploring the differences that unite individuals and keep them apart. This trend continues in The Master, a film that will surely mesmerize some and perplex others.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic who hazily floats through life with no sense of direction. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of serving in World War II, Quell finds it tough to find and maintain a job. The only constant in Quell’s life is his uncanny ability to make homemade alcohol out of everything from fuel to turpentine. After one of his beverages accidently poisons a co-worker at a cabbage farm, Quell flees California by stowing away on a boat.

The boat is commandeered by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher”. Referred to as “The Master” by his followers, Dodd is the leader of a fledging movement known as The Cause. Intrigued by Quell’s bizarre nature, and believing he can cure him, Dodd invites him into The Cause’s fold. While Dodd is confident that Quell’s presence is a good thing, Dodd’s dutiful wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is skeptical of whether Quell has the willingness to want to change. She views Quell’s alcoholism as a serious danger to The Cause.


The Master does not make any attempts to hide where some of the film’s inspiration stems from. Lancaster Dodd and The Cause are clearly a nod to L. Ron Hubbard and the Scientology movement. However, those who are expecting a scathing exposes on Scientology will be sorely disappointed. While the film does raise questions as to whether or not Lancaster Dodd is a fraud?, his own son Val (Jesse Plemons) remarks that his father is “making it up as he goes along”, the film is more interested in using organized religion as a catalyst for a far more riveting character study.

Though vastly different in how they view the world they live in, both Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell are in search of the one thing that seems to evade them. For Dodd it is a validation that will quiet any skepticism from both his critics and followers. He views fixing Quell as the ultimate proof that his system indeed works. While Quell finds it hard to buy into the ideology that Dodd spews, he is quick to get physical with anyone who openly speaks against Dodd. Through Dodd, Quell finds a sense of belonging that he has been missing for several years.

What makes the friendship between Dodd and Quell so fascinating is that Anderson keeps the question of the true nature of man at the forefront. Dodd’s whole philosophy for The Cause is based on reconnecting with one’s true self. However, Dodd’s true nature is carefully disguised. Conveying himself as inquisitive and jovial man, Dodd often chastises Quell for being an “animal”. Yet his short fuse, which appears when his ideology is challenged, reveals cracks in this facade. In many ways the presence of Quell is a representation of Dodd’s true nature.


While a visually stunning film, The Master is a film that succeeds primarily due to the outstanding performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Their scenes together are simply captivating. An example of this is found in the scene in which Dodd and Quell find themselves in neighbouring jail cells. Phoenix in particular is exceptional strong in this scene as he seethes with rage while yelling expletives at Hoffman’s Dodd. Like a caged animal, Phoenix trashes his cell while simultaneously breaking down Hoffman’s cool demeanor by questioning the truthfulness of his rhetoric. It is one of the many scenes in the film that showcases the exceptional work from the two leads.

The Master is a film that will not please everyone. Paul Thomas Anderson poses several questions with the film, but leaves his intentions up to the viewer to decide. As mentioned earlier, those looking for a film solely about Scientology will be disappointed. However, those willing to go in with an open mind will experience a challenging and rewarding character study. Similar to his last film, There Will Be Blood, The Master finds Paul Thomas Anderson defying conventional storytelling in order to create a truly unique film going experience. The Master is one of the best films you will see this year.

6 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful review, but I'll have to disagree. http://randomfilmbuff.com/2012/09/25/d-15/

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    1. I read your review and I can see why you thought the film lacked purpose. However, I actually think that one of the film’s strengths is that it does not spell everything out for the viewer. Anderson packs so many themes into this film that each viewer will come out with their own interpretation of what the film represents. The Master is a film that is ripe for repeat viewings.

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  2. Great review Courtney. It doesn't necessarily answer all of the questions it brings up, but always delivers on showing us an entertaining and interesting story about two different guys, who both come together in a very strange way. One of the best of the year.

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    1. As you mentioned the film is consistently entertaining, there was never a moment where I was not captivating by what I was witnessing on screen.

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  3. Great review. I think this movie proved to me that Anderson is one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

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    1. Agreed. Every film is a truly unique experience. He is also becoming the master of capturing the feel of particular eras. Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and The Master are all perfect examples of this.

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