The Master, movie review

Written by  Sal Kapoor
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The Master, a PM movie review

The Master, movie review. Pre production rumors surrounding The Master suggested a film revolving a around cult leader. Half expecting to see a guru defraud his flock and amass a collection 99 Rolls Royces or a wild tussled charlatan graffiti the walls with political piggy, I watched the latest film offering by Paul Thomas Anderson, anticipating a narrative with the dynamics of Helter Skelter. I was surprised to within the first few minutes to learn how misleading the rumors were. Pleasantly surprised.

With an array of directorial styles and homage, The Master is on par with works such as Citizen Kane and Ikuru and a filmic nod to Malick’s visual lyricism. Having excelled his previous works including Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood, Anderson has constructed a magnificent saga, which scrutinizes the dynamics between two polarities of post war American society.

The story of The Master follows dual journeys of protégé, Freddie QuinnJoaquin Phoenix and The Master, Lancaster DoddPhilip Seymour Hoffman as their paths cross upon a boat one night that in a scene reminiscent of Confucian legend. Having been discharged from army service, we first encounter Phoenix play sexing with a sand doll and consequently, being assessed in psychiatric profiling. Phoenix is reduced to aimlessly drifting across a post-Steinbeck terrain, making moonshine to fund his meth addiction. The remainder of the film’s 144 minutes follows Dodd and Quinn as their intense friendship develops. That is essentially what happens.

Phoenix, a drunk with a Chaplin-esque swagger fascinates us with his nihilism as he represses his traumas with industrial tinged hooch. We are never really given closure around his processing, which cites the film’s midpoint. What a relief. For a moment, the film threatens to branch a Bill W thread where the drunk surrenders his alcohol affliction to a 12-step higher power.

The Cause is a belief, drawing parallels with Scientology and R Hubbard. However, this is not film’s impetus. It is background against which two able actors (and cameos) are masterfully directed to deliver powerful scenes of dialogue and conflict, rising in intensity and showcasing great depth of character and dramatic arcs. It hints a spiritual discourse in that The Cause tempers a belief in karma, which lends a theory of two characters repaying karmic debts from previous incarnations. The idea of birth, rebirth and karma is polarized against the Judaea-Christian America of the post war period and Hoffman is inevitably punished with a stint in jail. Opposing the zeitgeist is a daring move and Hoffman’s strength of character and his belief are tested at various points. However, he has enough vested in himself and his entourage (although not according to his son who tells Phoenix he is making it all up) that he is able to express how overjoyed he is when he reunites with Phoenix after a row. After all, he is human, all too human. The on-screen chemistry is comparable to the rhythm of Plant and Page as they develop intimacy then fall out.

Anderson’s circular Groundhog narrative themes are lifted from a biopic drama to a more superlative and intimate stage where the idea of soul mates exists against a patriarchic world where sex is incestuous and addictive.

There is a surreal burlesque scene where a jolly sing a long suddenly undergoes a naked, pre-orgy chorus although this may be credited to hallucinatory withdrawal. The quick fire questioning is filmed in an intense therapeutic exchange, leaving vulnerabilities to surface.

At times, the cinematic mavericks come to mind; Well’s Rosebud, Elmer Gantry and David Lean’s Lawrence, filmed with impressive cinematography ranging from wide shots to intense close ups. The whole mise en scene recalls the post war period with glorious Hitchcockian colour and chain-smoking Mad Men.

Towards the end of the film, Phoenix looses weight, becomes increasingly disheveled as his mask starts to slip and his face is mapped with increasing lines. He becomes less of the mischievous figure that leaps over fences, outruns lynch mobs and attacks Hoffman’s critics, although, he does retain his snarl to the end.

2012 opened its cinematic Pandora’s box late in the year but saved the best till last. The Master is moody and seduces you with its delicious visuals and hidden themes. Let’s skip the ceremonial foreplay and give Anderson an Oscar. Actually, let’s give him several.

Sal Kapoor


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