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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Master

I sense another Tree of Life review coming up...

The Master is, on a purely technical level, a masterpiece. It's a sharply dialogued, well crafted tale about the twisted co-dependent relationship between a cult leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and one of his most fanatical disciples (Joaquin Phoenix) that features at least two truly exceptional performances, an unforgettable soundtrack courtesy of Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood and the kind of cinematography where each and every frame could easily be featured in an art gallery.

That doesn't mean I liked it, though.

Mind you, that's hardly surprising considering that it's written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who puts the "challenging" in challenging filmmaking. You know you're dealing with someone who isn't afraid to alienate his audience when a biting look at life in the porn industry is by far his most accessible work. Even within critical circles, his films are often extremely divisive; being revered as modern day masterworks by some, anti-narrative exercises in self-indulgence by others.

Personally, I've always been very ambivalent about Anderson. His films are, without fail, triumphs on a technical level, but they often feel self-important (Magnolia), even obnoxious (Punch Drunk Love) and they seldom boast the most involving of narratives. At their best though, they do invoke a certain visceral reaction - none more so than There Will Be Blood where its potentially uninvolving and frustrating storytelling is negated by the indelible impression of its overall tone and resonance.

The Master is, as I said, as good as any PTA film on a purely technical level, but as a piece of storytelling I found it to be far from his best work. In effect, The Master is about two things: about the co-dependent relationship between these two damaged men and, arguably, about the danger of cults in general.

 It has to be said, that if it is indeed about cults - Scientology or otherwise - it's a rather definite failure as it never really explores its own fictional cult enough and it certainly doesn't examine its affects on its victims with anything more than the most superficial of glances. I may have had my issues with Martha Macy May Marlene, but that at least does justice to the horrors of its subjects.

To be fair though, I do think that The Master is much less interested in the cult itself, as much as it is in its two central characters. Admittedly, it's far more successful here, but it's still plagued by a fatal flaw: Philip Seymour Hoffman is undoubtedly brilliant as the eponymous cult leader and he is given plenty to work with, but I really can't say the same about Joaquin Phoenix in either his performance or his character.

Phoenix is unquestionably a brilliant actor and, purely in terms of transforming himself into someone else, he does a great job here, it's just a pity that what he turns into comes across as more a collection of tics and highly mannered eccentricities than an even halfway believable character. And in typical PTA-at-his-worst form, his character is also entirely unsympathetic throughout the film, making it damn near impossible to engage with anything on screen. Had the film centered on Hoffman's relationship with his wife (an unsurprisingly powerful Amy Adams), we might have been onto something but every time Phoenix's character appears on screen, I automatically lost interest.

As it is, The Master is worth a watch if you're a PTA fan or enough of a cinephile to take your chances with technically brilliant, but challenging works that may well not be worth the effort. For everyone else though, there are more than enough unequivocally good films out at the moment to waste your time being frustrated by Paul Thomas Anderson at his most indulgent.

(The score incidentally, is an average of my subjective rating of 4/10 and an objective rating of 8/10 - again, my problem with the film might be entirely because of my own biases. Still approach with caution)

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