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The Master is a film, which dwarfs the term â€œwell-madeâ€. It is proof of Paul Thomas Anderson's genius as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. I read the screenplay before I saw the film and I'm glad I did. If you want to know the difference between filming a script and making a film, this is it. The screenplay has all the basic ingredients but what we get on the platter, is something we've never tasted before. The word on paper and the visuals on film are separate entities; one is borne out of the other of course. We are offered what's on the edges, dangling on the periphery, more than telling us what is on the surface. It's like eating the crusts of a sandwich. You have to work your way to get to the filling, which is waiting to be devoured. Gather the crumbs to reach the destination, like going on a slow boat to China.
P.T. Anderson began has career with three excellent films - Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). His best film as a director and my favorite of his is Magnolia. He entered the second phase of his career starting with Punch Drunk Love (2002). This is when he became another kind of filmmaker, further exhibited in There Will Be Blood (2007). Not filming scripts but expanding them technically and thematically till they fit onto the screen. For me, he has hit his peak with The Master. The cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is breathtaking. It is hard to keep your eyes off of the screen, blinking seems like a mistake. The music by Jonny Greenwood is mortifying and makes sure your senses are enraptured. This is film hypnosis at its nightmarish best.
If nothing else, this film must be seen for the outstanding performances alone. Joaquin Phoenix is visceral, almost scary in his portrayal of Freddie Quell. Amy Adams looks like the sweetest person in Hollywood. This is an immaculate casting decision. I've never seen such raw malevolence in her eyes before. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the master - Lancaster Dodd. His performance is nothing short of a masterstroke. P.T. Anderson is great with his actors, each film of his contains superlative performances. I believe every actor, if they want to learn film acting should watch two films - Network (1976) and Magnolia (1999). That's it. You're done.
The film is said to be based on the cult of Scientology, specifically, its founder - L. Ron Hubbard. According to Anderson, the germ came from it, but the cells formed into a new organism. Is it an attack on the cult? I don't believe so. If it was, we would have seen at least one customary scene on the commercial aspect of it. â€œWhatâ€ is â€œThe Causeâ€ is never answered. â€œWhoâ€ is Dodd is never answered. â€œHowâ€ members are recruited or cured is never shown. â€œWhyâ€ the characters meet is questioned. â€œWhyâ€ the characters think what they think is questioned. Be it Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, we have seen charismatic leaders being one of his primary interests. The Master, in essence, is a mentor-mentee movie. It seems to be about a believer and a seeker.
What you are supposed to make of these characters is never conveyed, which can be mistaken for â€œflawsâ€. (I personally don't understand that term when it comes to movies). P.T. Anderson does not give us the privilege of a standard plot. It asks us to work for it. The minor issues I have with the film aren't technical but thematic. Dodd is a believer of The Cause. Freddie is the lost cause. It may seem like PTA's last two films are an attack on religion or faith. Anyone acquainted with the cult of PTA would know they are about men obsessed with the false interpretation of godhood. Men caught in the cycle of desire and its demons. They are elegiac celebrations of humanity drenched in loneliness and purgatory. Even Jesus had a Judas. Lancaster Dodd is just a man; he can surely have a Freddie Quell.
Like Citizen Kane (1941), the masterpiece which never claimed to be a biopic on William Randolph Hearst but chose to be a fascinating character study instead. The Master, similarly, is the story of a man who chooses to serve a man in power to be his master. It is about a relationship of two human beings. Above all, they are men. Hopelessly inquisitive men, just like us. (I mean humankind, you too ladies) Dodd wants to be the person who is above men, but is he?
The film does not have answers and that can be an unsettling dead end. This can give you a sense that it does not have a resolution. When indeed it does, as far as Dodd and Quell are concerned, the characters decide the conclusion of their journey. Unless they meet again in their next life. In an imaginary world, P.T. Anderson might film a sequel about two sworn enemies. Perhaps a prequel, a biblical epic with Judas at the center. Or probably go straight for gold and give us a biopic on Satan.