Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the year’s first serious contender to the Oscar race, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sublime film The Master. At the Oscars it will surely compete for best picture, best director, best actor Joaquin Phoenix, best supporting actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, best cinematography, and other prizes because this my friends is the first truly great film of 2012.
It’s an ambitious and gorgeously shot journey into Mid-20th Century America just as World War 2 is ending. Right away we meet a navy man on the island of Guam, on his way back to American soil, who’s searching for his place in life. Struggling to deal with rage, alcoholism, and lust, battles he often loses. This is Freddie Quell, a cocky, tormented man, played by Joaquin Phoenix in his finest hour, using a unique body language suggesting a man beaten down by life but hardened by that beating.
This young man is all ID, unable to control his impulses. He gets a job as a family photographer in a department store but falls into a wild, messy brawl with a customer because he’s unable to fit into polite, consumerist society. Like America after the war, quell is rootless and unsure of where to go and who to be, until he drunkenly wanders onto a boat captained by Lancaster Dodd played by the peerless Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Dodd is a charismatic philosopher seducing people into his realm, his cult, his belief system based on past lives, inner exploration, and mumbo jumbo. As they meet Dodd says to Quell, “leave your worries for a while. They’ll be there when you get back. your memories aren’t invited.” Off we go on a trip into both men’s souls. One is the father/teacher, feeding knowledge and nonsense, the other is the difficult son/student struggling to access his heart.
Hoffman’s Dodd is the sun around which the film’s cosmology orbits and does he ever provide all the heat the film needs. don’t be distracted by the hype about the master’s similarities to scientology. it’s not a biopic, it’s inspired by the story of l. Ron Hubbard, but it’s no expose and the film needs none of that link to be great.
It’s another epic from P. T. Anderson, who’s given us the great boogie nights and the deep magnolia and the bittersweet punch drunk love and the incredible there will be blood.
In those films Anderson mined the edges of the 20th century. with the master he dives into its middle, but still he’s focused on lonely characters in dysfunctional families. Anderson is with no doubt one of America’s top living filmmakers and in the master he’s working at the top of his game.