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Movie Reviews

The Master



Reviewer: Alexander Penn

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams

Released: 12 November 2012 (UK)

Certificate: 15

Ever so often you walk out of the cinema wondering whether you’ve just seen a landmark work of art. I was locked in unease, not even sure if I liked it, loved it, or despised it.

This isn’t about the hypocrisy of a cult, this is a film about one’s quest for an identity, the longing for comfort, meaning and self-harmony, and auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson, enacts the picture’s plot onto you, the viewer.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a childish WWII veteran roped into a cult, which is basically a double for Scientology. Desperate for a sense of authority and assurance, he adopts The Master of the cult, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as his father figure to stave off the torment of his past.

Dodd’s a mystic, academic, fictional writer, whatever you want to make of him, but it’s important that his views are baseless, reforming and reshaping throughout the film, forcing us to leave our judgements at the door because there’s nothing solid to judge.

This didn’t become a freak-show dissection of a nutty cult, this became a platform for a far more profound journey of self-discovery for Quell, and the audience. We never know what anything truly is, it’s almost as if PTA positions us in a dreamy, fantastical sub-society holding back with meaning yet, in doing so, providing so much more.

It’s so simple, so monotone, heralding the punch of pure, artful cinema. The vagueness leaves room for us to intervene, to mingle with the content and infect it with our own meanings, and it’s Anderson’s phenomenal pacing and visuals that curates this sensation. Every shot could be mounted on a wall and the puzzling plot directions makes every message float away into some sort of ether that we have no hope of making absolute sense of.

The question for Quell is who am I? What is my purpose? What must I be? In the process of trying to answer these questions, we’re forced to ask some of our own.

Anderson has choreographed a beautiful work about the convulsions of the human condition, using the mechanics of a cult to comment on the natural outreach for identity. It’s clean, clear, operative and honest, using the magic of cinema to ask some bold questions.

Phoenix and Hoffman were scintillating, but the head of this master-work is undoubtedly Paul Thomas Anderson. The power is in the production, the tease of the direction and airiness of the presentation. It’s visually stupefying, an eye-full of the likes we haven’t seen since Kubrick.

This is the majesty of cinema in motion, which will no doubt make Anderson’s case as one of the great film-makers of the past century.

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