Anderson, Phoenix Make A Bid For Oscar Gold With 'The Master'
Published: Sunday, September 23, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
With big budgets and big egos, it is sometimes hard to remember that filmmaking is in fact an art. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a crisp and stern reminder of such merits.
Composed of two striking lead performances, a stunning string of visuals, and a methodically crafted storyline, The Master is a continuance of quality works from director Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights), who has made a living off providing challenging character studies for adult audiences.
Set during the doldrums of postwar America, the film centers around navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic and victim of post-traumatic stress. Quell quickly finds himself incapable of functioning within the lines of society, and chaotically bounces around various professions. The solider maintains his status as a drifter until his drunken escapades lead him on board a lavish boat helmed by the cryptic Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
Dodd likens himself to a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher when Quell inquires, yet the vet soon realizes that Dodd is the leader of a growing spiritual movement that bears a loose resemblance to Scientology. The two men, on account of Dodd finding Quell to be a source of inspiration, begin to build a companionship that blurs the line between friendship and doctor-patient relations.
Quell, seeing the self-proclaimed “Master” as a paternal figure, soon becomes Dodd’s right-hand man and voluntarily takes on the role of enforcer against anyone who doubts Dodd’s teachings. In return, the Master, much to the dismay of his jealous wife (Amy Adams), brings Quell into his family, treating the recovering drunk like one of his own. The intentions of Dodd, however, quickly become obscured. Quell begins to seem more like a test subject for experimental mysticisms rather than a legitimate friend of the spiritual leader.
Like his previous works, Anderson’s character-driven story demands strong performances for its leads, and the already legendary director finds two suitable players in Phoenix and Hoffman. Phoenix, returning from nearly four years of obscurity, delivers a majestic tour de force as the deranged and booze-hungry Quell. Quell keeps the audience on edge, as his actions are as random as the words that spew out of the side of his mouth. Reportedly staying in character both on and off camera for nearly three months, Phoenix’s lead is the best performance of the year thus far and throws his hat into the Oscar race ring.
Hoffman, with a chilling portrayal of the charismatic yet sinister Lancaster Dodd, extends his formidable resume of notable performances. The seasoned Oscar-winner deviously teeters his spirituality between mastery and fraudulence. It is never clear whether Dodd is a religious genius or a well-educated crook, a diabolically deliberate move by Anderson. Amy Adams rounds out the trio with a bolstering supporting performance as Dodd’s erratic wife, a feverish maternal figure who attempts to control her husband’s every move.
Aside from the impressive acting triad, Anderson’s visuals are the guiding artistic force in The Master. Teaming up for the first time with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Anderson creates a vibrant world around his characters, which is established by vivid opening shots of Quell during his time as soldier. The clean contrast of colors places the audience in the sterile world of the early ’50s, where war veterans and housewives alike frantically search for deliverance.
This is not, by any means, Anderson’s first time dealing with the past, with previous films set in such eras as the American westward expansion and the dazzling days of disco, but this is the director’s finest period piece. Having been shut out of five Oscar nominations, Anderson’s latest offering might be the film that finally sways Academy votes in his favor. Nonetheless, The Master is the product of a master at work.