The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson


Trying to keep an eye on you

How the heck is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master not nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Original Music, and Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards?  It contains all the major ingredients necessary for perfection.

First, the cinematography and direction: It’s the first motion picture since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1966) to be shot on 65mm and the visual results are astounding.  This isn’t a movie that relies on a ton of special effects or fast motion.  Instead, what comes across is an unprecedented level of depth and detail that serves to suck the viewer directly into the world of its subjects.  For the most part, this digital age of cinema seems to be all about flashing, blasting, booming, explosions, and wildly inventive eye candy that dazzles, but never quite serves to advance any type of meaningful plot.  Anderson’s film most certainly benefits from his decision to go retro, not just for the sake of doing it because he could, but rather because it was the right medium in which to best capture the story he was attempting to tell.  It comes as little surprise that Anderson actually hates all aspects of digital and ended up cutting the film using the negatives and color grading on a photochemical timer.  The end result is nothing short of impressive.

Second, the soundtrack: Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood returns to score his second Anderson film (There Will Be Blood) and his soundtrack perfectly captures the atmosphere of both the era and the primary characters which populate it.

Third, the screenplay: The exquisitely plotted story points two giant middle fingers right in the face Hollywood’s favorite religion.  That’s right Scientologists; look out because P.T. Anderson is coming for you!  In fact, this is probably the biggest reason that the film has been snubbed in most major categories.

Finally, the acting: Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Moneyball, The Ides of March), and Amy Adams (The Fighter) all turn the performance of their careers.  All three should win come awards night.  At least the Academy managed to get a few things right when it came time to nominate.

Phoenix plays the part of Freddie Quell, an alcoholic Naval veteran who drifts from job to job.  He gets fired from his job as a store photographer after he attacks a customer.  He gets chased off his job at a farm after he inadvertently poisons a man with his homemade hooch.  Finally, one night he blacks out aboard a ship and awakens the next morning to discover that he’s inadvertently gotten himself wrapped up in a cult which refers to itself as “The Cause.”  He almost instantly befriends the leader of the movement, an author of junk self-help books named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). His wife Peggy (Adams) has reservations about Quell and the impact his presence seems to have on her man.

Dodd puts his followers, including Quell, through a series of psychological questions which he calls Processing.  He also believes in past lives.  Is he meant to be a fictional version of L. Ron Hubbard?  Without question, but I also think we can safely advance that theory even one step further.

He tells Freddie repeatedly that he knows him from somewhere, but can’t quite place exactly where.  Are Quell and Dodd the same person?  Does one represent a younger, brasher L. Ron Hubbard while the other is meant to be the older, wiser, more charismatic man he would eventually become?  As the picture progresses the evidence for this theory being the correct one continues to slowly build.

And now I’ve said too much.

The Master is a film that demands attention from its audience in a way that isn’t typical of today’s American cinema.  It’s a breathtaking masterpiece that succeeds on every level, but it most certainly will not appeal to everyone out there.  That’s a good thing in my opinion.

After viewing this one I felt like I wanted to keep it like a secret.  I wanted it to be just for me.  I didn’t want my feelings about it to be tainted by the thoughts and reactions that others might have to it.  I wanted to be the master of The Master.  The events of the film keep running through my head like a messed up storyboard for a fragmented existence.  No matter how hard I try, I just can’t shake it.  If that’s not the sign of a good film, then I don’t know what is.

The_Master ★★★★★
The Master
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Nominated For:
Actor in a Leading Role (Joaquin Phoenix)
Actor in a Supporting Role (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
Actress in a Supporting Role (Amy Adams)

United States
144 Minutes


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About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.