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The Master commands attention, rewards thoughtful viewers

This was the third place entry in the Features category of Imprint Magazine's Fall 2012 writing contest.

A movie theatre is a bit like a church. It has a reverent group atmosphere, designed to hold audiences in awe as they watch stories spun on a glowing silver screen, stories meant to soothe them, help them to escape, or perhaps teach them something about their own lives. Paul Thomas Anderson, who demonstrated his greatness in films like Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and even Punch-Drunk Love, is an accomplished preacher, and he exploits that one-of-a-kind artistic forum to its fullest extent with his new film, The Master.

With some of the greatest actors and crew members at his disposal, Anderson’s technique is hypnosis, and here he projects a grand, confounding sermon surrounding Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a manic veteran of World War II, and his chance encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a “hopelessly inquisitive” leader of a blossoming new religion, The Cause, a group vaguely similar to the cult of Scientology.
Though the film is not directly about that group, as early reports mentioned, the parallels are marked and major (indeed, L. Ron Hubbard was a direct inspiration for Dodd). Today, in the era of Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology is something of a laughing stock, and Anderson does something remarkable by immediately putting the viewer on the side of The Cause; like Freddie, we believe in the healing power of its unorthodox methods (thanks to a soon-to-be legendary “processing” scene), and feel insulted when its teachings are brought into question.

Anderson displays some of the most original storytelling in cinematic history here, drawing similarities to last year’s love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece The Tree of Life. Like that film, it is stately and contemplative, taking its pace and style from great literature, and also maddeningly contentious, obscure, and bizarre. However, this is not a bad thing; each directorial decision is clearly deliberate, and every moment is ripe with meaning, even if it is not immediately apparent.

It is the kind of challenging, against-the grain film that may not connect with everyone at first glance, but will be dissected and discussed by academics for years to come. Alternately absurd and touching, The Master may not boast the operatic ups and downs of There Will Be Blood, but it is still absolutely compelling, and able to keep audiences enraptured even when the pace becomes languid and more than a little ambiguous.

That kind of patient direction, in addition to the soft glows of Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography and the deep strings and winds of Jonny Greenwood’s score, is deeply intoxicating, suggesting the curious naiveté of Freddie, or Dodd’s enormous delusions of grandeur. Scene after scene presents something intimate, subjective, and entirely unique, particularly those that feature both Phoenix and Hoffman. Like Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in Blood, the characters here are presented on a titanic scale, full of meaning and life, and always unpredictable.

Anderson’s cast more than rises to the occasion, and each of them easily disappears into the fabric of the illusion. The turns by Phoenix and Hoffman are monstrous achievements, destined for accolades and a place in cinematic history – they shared the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month. Amy Adams, too, known for harmless roles in films like Enchanted, has some shining moments as Dodd’s wife, adding gravity to each moment with nothing but her mysterious presence.

At its heart, The Master is a story about pain, and the means to which men will go to keep it at bay, from Freddie’s toxic cocktails to Dodd’s high-flying idea of the “everlasting spirit.” But, no matter how hard we try, the pain will always seep in through the cracks. Neither a film nor a spirited sermon can hold off a person’s demons for long, but The Master has the power to affect the viewer, teach them something, and ultimately send them back out into the world still under its spell, in a starry-eyed daze, allowing them to see their world a little bit differently. This is the purpose of cinema, and Anderson, a true master of the craft, exploits the great medium to its fullest potential. It stands to become one of the finest works of the new century, and seeing it on the big screen is a true wonder. Make the pilgrimage.


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