In the aftermath of WW2, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is uncertain of his future, until he encounters The Cause and it’s charismatic leader.
it is great to see that Joaquin Phoenix has survived his very public and very fake meltdown while making I’m Still Here, and his performance in The Master reminds audiences that Phoenix is an actor who is as talented as he is unsettling. As Freddie Quell, Phoenix is troubled and violent, but he plays Quell like a drunken child who thinks breasts are sort of funny and will fight anyone who does not love his father figure, the Master. Phoenix is utterly convincing and allows the audience to see why this character is so easily swayed by a charismatic man, and why he is especially vulnerable to being drawn in by a new spiritual sect. As well as this, Phoenix’s physical portrayal of a man struggling with mental demons is one of the best performances this year.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnetic as the Master. Hoffman plays the character as a father figure who draws people to him. These may be people who are damaged or unsettled, and he allows them to believe that they have found a home in him. Hoffman allows the Master to balance on a knife-edge; one moment he is genial and kind, but as soon as he is challenged he is prone to vitriolic outbursts. Amy Adams plays the Master’s wife, Peggy; she is both endearing and repulsive in the role as a dangerous woman with a powerful hold over her husband.
The relationships in the film are what fascinates. Quell is a man who is ostensibly damaged from his wartime experiences, but as time goes on we discover that his bond with the Master is the latest in a string of dysfunctional relationships that are scattered throughout his life. We never learn much about the Master and Peggy, other than he has had several ex-wives and Peggy is obviously the one who is pulling his strings, so instead of this being a personal relationship with two people, the spectre of Peggy looms over everything that the Master and Quell do.
Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson has created a film that always appears to be leading towards something, but somehow never gets there. So much time is given to showing the power that these people have over one another, that there is little space left to show the effect this power has. In fact, it appears as though Quell learns little throughout his time with The Cause; he remains violent and petulant, and the only thing that changes is his attempts to use the Master’s techniques on a girl he is sleeping with. It seems as though the film relies so heavily on the association with a certain Church operating in the world today that it forgets to tell a story throughout it’s 144 minute running time. The gorgeous cinematography and powerful performances go some way to make up for this, but many audience members may find themselves leaving the cinema disorientated and empty.
In all, The Master is a film that relies on powerful performances, beautiful cinematography and a fantastic score. Everything about the film is a slow burn, but for a film with so much scope, it has surprisingly little to say.