End of the decade! In a year filled with spellbinding cinema, people have been taking the opportunity to reflect on the entire decade and rank their films in extensive lists. I thought it’d be a great idea to blindly jump on the bandwagon and participate with no original twist! Instead of a list I’ll delve into the depths of my mind to explain why one particular film has lingered among all the other films I’ve adored over the past decade. I guess like most things in life, after a while the truly important moments/pieces of art stick around like a ‘greatest hits’ of your life. Every film I watch takes a part of me, emotionally and intellectually, and is ingrained into my mind. Akin to investing time in reading a book or critically analysing paintings, I feel connected to any film I’ve taken the time to devote my full attention to. However, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece ‘The Master’ is the one film that has occupied my brain ever since I saw it in 2014. Although I’ll attempt to explain why this film continues to affect me so deeply, I can’t quite put my finger on why. I keep revisiting these haunting scenes, the precise synthesis of moving images and sound, and the powerhouse performances of these complex characters. Each time I learn a bit more, inching closer to the truth, opening new cans of worms and interpretations. For my money, I think its perfect.
While ‘The Master’ has its roots in the 1946 John Huston documentary ‘Let There Be Light’ and feels like the spiritual sequel to the foreboding mood established in ‘There Will Be Blood’, I feel confident in saying that this movie is nothing like Anderson had ever directed before, and ever will. The pure experimentation of the lyrical cinematography, poetic screenplay and mesmerising soundtrack lull the audience into a state of hypnosis. At times it feels like a waking dream, and this is all thanks to Anderson’s razor-sharp direction. Take the first two shots of the film as an example - a boat engine creating ripples in the water and an obscured close-up of Joaquin Phoenix’s disenchanted face wearing a WW2 helmet. Straight off the bat we have essential character information being expertly imparted to the audience whilst Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack communicates the eerie disillusionment of reintegrating into society following warfare. This is further extended to the opening 20 minutes of the film which draws the audience into the demented mindset of Freddy, keenly observing his dialogue, posture and everyday life with unflinching accuracy. Immediately, Anderson’s insightful screenplay documents an intimate yet ambiguous study of an alienated man unable to grasp his emotions or purpose in post-WW2 society.
Anderson’s filmmaking has matured so much that the expository elements of the main storyline fuse insidiously into Freddy’s character arc. The mysterious cult, ‘The Cause’, which the film is centred around is introduced so methodically that the audience gets an extensive, subjective look at how the religion operates whilst not over-explaining things. The result is a film that evokes pointed themes of control (whether physical, sexual, social, political or religious) while remaining elusive and mysterious. The reason the film works so well is precisely these intangible elements - a stereotypical ‘Oscar’ movie could have been made from the same material where the characters are oversimplified and the audience walks away with essentially ‘religion can be bad sometimes’. Instead the film delves deep into the dichotomous human psyche, past traumas and assimilation into modern society, the effects of group mentality thinking, losing individuality, and the internal conflict between man acting as repressed civilians or impulsive animals under the guidance of a ‘master’.
Anderson’s aforementioned screenplay sets up these hefty thematic questions with a excellent sense of pacing. He effectively utilises montages to portray the passing of time and alluring seduction of The Cause whilst consistently establishing new information about character, mood and plot in every scene. Greenwood’s striking score underlines most of these scenes, building upon his genius work in ‘There Will Be Blood’ with a postmodern edge that seems to subvert the traditional warmth of 1950’s jazz and grand orchestral movements of the Classical era, echoing the experimentation of Krzysztof Penderecki and Igor Stravinsky. Additionally, Anderson’s outstanding work with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and his decision to shoot in 65mm format with Panavision’s System 65 camera is heartbreakingly sublime and gorgeous. This large film stock and lenses establish an extremely shallow depth of field in some scenes, capturing light and camera movements in operatic intensity that immerses the audience into the film’s unique universe. This is further aided by the exquisite production design by Jack Fisk (frequent collaborator of David Lynch) which captures an almost heightened, stylised vision of 1950’s America to the spellbinding detail of a modernist painting.
It goes without saying that Anderson has a gift for writing memorable characters that occupy the recesses of my brain long after the film has ended, giving actors career-best material that allows them to truly showcase their strengths (think of Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk-Love, Daniel Day-Lewis and pretty much anyone in Magnolia/Boogie Nights). Specifically in ‘The Master’, the actors transcend their performances as these characters and become indistinguishable from anything else they’ve ever done. Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the best performances I have ever seen in a film. Pure and simple. His hunched-over posture, mumbled line delivery and contorted face all contribute to Phoenix’s uncanny inhabitance of Freddy. His otherworldly performance is matched by the intensity of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic and dominating presence within the story. The mastery with which Hoffman delivers weighted lines with such control and comfort is a testament to the subtlety and confidence he imbued into every role. A striking physicality bonds these performances together and demonstrates their unforgettable commitment to the film; whenever there is violence the actors appear as if they’re actually hurting each other (the jail scene, the scenes where Freddy lashes out). Additionally, Amy Adams works against type to establish an underlying danger and unwelcoming demeanour that permeates throughout each scene. Most of the time she lurks in the background, perhaps just out of focus, always watching and observing. The enigma of her character is a sinister reminder of the insistence of The Cause’s insular group mentality, and she plays the role with a quiet assertiveness.
I will quickly divulge into spoilers just for this paragraph - what are we to make of the ending? I think it is perhaps the most ingenious resolution for these characters, a resolution that only could have followed the unpredictable film that came before it. Throughout the film we witness the fusion of two separate men, of two separate worlds and life experiences, of the animalistic mind and rational human thought. At the end the thematic tie-in of the entire film comes into full view with Dodd’s comment - “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” Whether alluding to religion or the need to assimilate our individual identities into the mould of a larger, more comfortable group identity in order to feel a sense of belonging, ‘The Master’ leaves this all up to interpretation with delicacy and poignancy. At the end of the film, Freddy is truly the only one who has been liberated from any constructed set of rules and ways of thinking. He has spent the film going from one institution to another (WW2 navy and The Cause), and now has developed the life skills to live devoid of any being’s external control. The bittersweet ending highlights the differences between Freddy as a free man and Dodd as a man forever living under the rules and constraints he has set up for himself. Which is the better way to live? The hopeful and touching final shot has a multiplicity of connotations. Has he fallen back into the same animalistic habits as before? Or has he found a solution to his problems? I think its uplifting. He has narrowed down and defined what he wants from life, which is to establish meaningful connections and to form worthwhile relationships (either romantically or platonically) with over people. In life I think that’s really what matters. At the end Freddy has been profoundly affected by his experience with The Cause, and the final shot glimpses a sympathetic insight into a lost soul regaining touch with what matters. He now has the courage to move forward. By himself.
Annnndd I’m done. Enough of me gushing over this film, I’ll of course leave you with the recommendation to watch this film. Sometimes lists of the ’50 best films of the decade’ can get a bit intimidating so hopefully if you watch one film in the new year, it’ll be this one! I’m truly grateful for everything I’ve experienced this year and I look forward to what 2020 brings. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!