out of Five
Running time: 144 mins
Brilliantly directed, beautifully shot and superbly scored, this is a compelling and powerful drama with an intriguingly multi-layered script and a pair of powerhouse performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is set in post-war America and stars Joaquin Phoenix as troubled ex-seaman Freddie Quell, who stumbles onto a boat leaving San Francisco and meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a Scientology-like religious movement called The Cause. Striking up a powerful bond with Dodd, Quell is taken under his wing and brought into his extended family, alongside his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) and son Val (Jesse Plemons).
However, though he remains a loyal friend and acolyte, Freddie's refusal to address his own problems (specifically his drinking) through the methods of The Cause eventually causes frustration and tension within the family, while Peggy grows increasingly distrustful of the bond between the two men.
Phoenix is superb as Freddie, delivering a wiry, tightly wound and impressively physical (at least in terms of ‘face acting’) performance that is almost painful to watch. Hoffman is equally good, sparking intriguing chemistry with Phoenix and portraying Dodd as a charismatic and warm-hearted figure, but one whose own insecurities and anger are clearly bubbling away just below the surface; his brilliantly sweary eruptions are extremely telling. There's also scene-stealing support from Adams as Peggy, whose behind-the-scenes influence is more powerful than first appears.
The film is beautifully shot, courtesy of Mihai Malaimare Jr's striking cinematography and there's a typically terrific, powerfully atmospheric score from Jonny Greenwood that recalls his work on previous Anderson films, particularly during the riveting opening sequences. In addition, Anderson orchestrates some bravura moments early on, such as a pair of sequences set in a department store that unfold in a single take.
The dialogue is excellent (there are some wonderful shouty scenes) and there are a series of bizarre and surreal moments that are guaranteed to stay with you, particularly Hoffman singing to a room full of naked women.
However, it is fair to say that, due to the editing, the structure and the seemingly relative lack of plot (at least in the traditional sense), the film is initially both distancing and frustrating on first viewing, though the rewards of a second watch are pronounced as the film's themes and ideas crystallise around the characters. This opens the film up to lively post-viewing pub-based discussion (for example, though never explicitly stated, the film can be read as a repressed love story between Dodd and Quell, an idea that ties in perfectly with Scientology).
Beautifully shot and brilliantly directed, The Master is a powerful, mesmerising and thought-provoking drama with a trio of tremendous performances from Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams that are certain to attract awards attention come Oscar time. Highly recommended.