Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running Time: 137 mins
The Master is an American film about a World War II navy veteran struggling to adapt to life in the post-war world who becomes acquainted with a leader of a religious movement that he soon becomes a part of.
Going into any film by Paul Thomas Anderson, you know that it’s set to be a challenging watch, and The Master is no different. A brilliantly intelligent drama that expands on themes of struggling to readjust after war, the film is an engrossing watch throughout. Bringing in an unsettling and thought-provoking look at the nature of faith, religion and preaching, there’s a lot to take on board with The Master, and a lot that will go over your head too.
First things first, among Paul Thomas Anderson’s more recent films, The Master stands out as arguably one of the boldest and most engrossing. Inherent Vice is perhaps a little more ambitious, but is totally incomprehensible, while There Will Be Blood has the edge when it comes to dramatic impact, but perhaps not with sheer artistic ambition.
And that’s what I really liked about The Master, that it pushes the boundaries of a normal drama, taking its main themes and breathing fresh and unique new life into them, but still retains the qualities and most importantly accessibility of a normal film too. As such, while it tests you throughout with its fiercely cerebral ideas and atmosphere, it’s actually not a hard film to get a good hold on, allowing you to stay fully engrossed the whole way through.
Saying that, The Master is still filled to the brim with fascinating and complex ideas about a wide variety of themes, and given just how much is going on through the film, it’s more than likely a good deal will go over your head, as it did mine. Fortunately, missing out on some of the film’s more implicit ideas doesn’t leave you bewildered as to what’s happening in the story, but I can certainly say this is a film that will really open up with repeat viewings.
However, what I found most fascinating and impressive about the film was how it takes the often-covered theme of a veteran struggling to adapt to post-war life and turned that into something completely different. While we do indeed see Joaquin Phoenix’s character coming to terms with a return to normal life, The Master doesn’t take on the theme in a traditional, The Best Years Of Our Lives-type way.
Instead, it expands into a more intimate and in-depth psychological portrait of a man feeling at a loss in the world, and looking desperately for somewhere to place his energy, efforts and faith. Finding that place in ‘The Cause’, a religious group led by the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he begins to open up and find an entirely new approach to life.
In that, the film offers a fascinating and engrossing look at how a man struggling to adapt to society after the war will take to the first opportunity he gets. But simultaneously, the film builds scepticism and unsettling suspicion surrounding the true nature and intentions of ‘The Cause’.
From there, we get an equally enthralling insight into the dangerous power of self-prophetic organisations that, no matter how logical or well-spoken their preachings may be, are able to take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society, in this case Phoenix’s lonely and disturbed veteran.
The balance between those two main themes gives the film riveting and multifaceted drama right the way through, and turns it into far more than the relatively simple story it seems to set itself up as in the early stages.
But beyond the narrative, director Paul Thomas Anderson does a fantastic job at giving the film a powerful sense of transcendent drama with his typically ambitious style.
Although the film isn’t as stylised as the likes of Inherent Vice or Phantom Thread, you can tell from the start that it’s not just any drama. From there, with very patient pacing that furthers the intimacy of the drama, as well as costume and production design and an impressive original score that hint to something being slightly off in its period setting, The Master proves to be entirely engrossing, and a real marvel to appreciate from a stylistic perspective.
It’s subtle yet brilliantly powerful and striking throughout, and shows a perfect middleground between the director’s either more or less stylised other works.
And finally, a word on the performances, which are equally fantastic. Joaquin Phoenix is great to watch throughout, and inhabits his emotionally broken character brilliantly, with a calm and level-headed performances that gives a striking portrayal of the veteran’s inner turmoil.
But beyond Phoenix, the real stand-out here is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Master himself. With an effortlessly charismatic performance, Hoffman shows the dangerous power of self-proclaimed preachers over the vulnerable likes of Phoenix’s character, while also fantastically catching you out to the same extent with his composed and assured nature, leading you to believe his teachings almost entirely even when it seems so clear that they’re far from the truth he suggests.
Overall, I was very impressed by The Master. A brilliantly engrossing drama that takes classic themes and expands on them in riveting and unique style, there’s so much to take in from the film that it likely requires multiple rewatches to fully appreciate. However, with fascinating drama, striking direction, a transcendent atmosphere and excellent performances, there’s more than enough to be taken aback by even on first viewing, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.9.