Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Master (2012) – Review

Review: The Master is the work of a proficient filmmaker, utilizing the medium to artfully tell his narrative and connect with the audience. The film is about a Naval combatant, Freddie Quell, returning from WWII who just does not seem to fit into society anymore. The horrors of war have emotionally scarred him. He drifts aimlessly from one odd job to the next until he is drawn in by a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, who takes an interest in him.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson takes a more experimental approach to his narrative with The Master. The film is not so much about Freddie’s story; rather it is more about his internal emotional struggle – his un-abating loneliness. There is a hole in Freddie that he just cannot seem to fill (he often turns to alcohol as an escape). We are shown pieces that when put together reveal Freddie’s emotional journey. However, Anderson does not just do this with story. He uses all available tools, taking full advantage of the score, photography and production design to both relate Freddie’s inner struggle in a more visual manner and to also play on the emotions of the viewer (especially with the score). The structure is not entirely straightforward either, exploiting flashbacks multiple times to drive deeper into the root of Freddie’s issues. In the present, the narrative only shows the viewer the most important of moments, constantly jumping forward escaping the mundane. This results in many of the scenes, particularly those between Freddie and the Master (Dodd), being electric and utterly compelling and engaging. They command the audience’s attention, as the viewer hangs on each word and action. The writing and performances are fantastic in this regard as well.

Anderson also has given a lot of emphasis to the characters as well. They are very well drawn and all given moments that are exploited for the audience to really understand them. However, what is interesting is that none of them is particularly likable (which is somewhat uncommon in filmmaking, especially in Hollywood movies). While unlikable characters can put some audience members off, as they cannot connect to people they do not like, Anderson uses humor and gives them a real humanity by not just making them flawed but also by making them seem real (the actors playing their characters with a combination of stylized naturalism) by having them engaging in ordinary tasks while emoting to overcome their un-likability. A good example of both is Freddie and Dodd sharing Freddie’s homemade brew. Their back-and-forth is very natural and funny.

Anderson uses humor throughout the film to temper the drama as well. The film is very heavy in many cases, as Freddie’s internal struggle affects the audience emotionally. He just seems to get in his own way and destroy all the good work he has done, which can be hard on an audience with a stake in him. Thus, the humor lightens the tone slightly and gives the audience a release and break from the emotional weight.

While The Master is exceptionally well made, the experimental nature of the narrative (both temporally and aesthetically, with some of the visual themes feeling very much like a Terrence Malick film – without all the voice-over narration – ‘man in nature’ or ‘man’s corruption’) will not work for all viewers. There is also not much action in the film, as all the scenes are about developing the characters (through dialogue or visually). Casual viewers looking for pure entertainment (might be surprised and find this very engaging as it is fantastic, but probably) will find this too slow and maybe even boring. The film is a bit weird – stemming from the music, the odd characters and the narrative structure, and again it is not going to work for everyone.

However, for those that do enjoy more aesthetically pleasing and thoughtful films, The Master is one of the best of 2012. It features wonderful characters, magnificent visuals and wholly dynamic scenes.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Paul Thomas Anderson has made six films, all of them very good. However, his last two (this and There Will Be Blood) have displayed a complete deftness for filmmaking – every aspect working together to create a fully cinematic and visceral experience. These films are layered, demanding multiple viewings to take in all the character and emotional drama to fully (if that is possible) understand the journey Anderson is taking the viewer on with the narrative. He is among the great auteurs working today (and in cinema history).

The Master, overall, is a phenomenal display of aesthetic brilliance. Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) score is consuming. It plays with the emotional state of the audience, often putting them ill-at-ease, which makes the drama and odd nature of Freddie or the more compelling and affecting. Like Freddie, the audience is never comfortable – it is remarkable work (here is a sample). Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography is beautiful in many places, exploiting the elegance and power of nature. His use of light and focus is also top notch. And, the framing and mise en scene is wonderful as well (I love the shot of Freddie running away through the barren field – if feels iconic for the film). Malaimare Jr. and Anderson have created one of the best shot films of 2012. David Crank and Jack Fisk’s production design is also of high aesthetic quality. The film has both a naturalistic and sort of exaggerated feel to it (and being that those seem to be contradictory, balancing the tone must have been difficult). The design work plays off this antagonism by having the characters look very natural and realistic but often occupy space that seems a bit off (like Dodd’s office at the school, which is my favorite set in the film).

 The performances are excellent throughout the film. W. Earl Brown, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ambyr Childers, and Rami Malek are good in small roles. Amy Adams has a real power and control in her supporting role. She seems very kind and gentle on the outside, but behind closed doors seems to be the true force behind the Cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman (as usual) is utterly brilliant. He dominates the screen, almost daring the viewer to look away. Dodd is completely flawed and seemingly lost, and yet also fully engaged and enamored with himself, which gives him boundless confidence. The performance is among his best work. Joaquin Phoenix has been a great actor for years, but seemingly under the radar (even with his Oscar nomination for Walk the Line) – that is no more with this performance. Freddie is the classic kind of character who is a walking emotional wrecking ball, obliterating anything good that might be coming to him. And yet, he plays Freddie with such an inner sadness, that the audience cannot help but relate to him, even when he is completely unlikable – a scoundrel.

Summary & score: The Master is an absolute cinematic joy to partake in – to experiences the mastery of a true auteur. 9/10

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