Many of my fellow critics tend to toss around the term masterpiece like one would toss around the word dude or bro at a frat party. I on the other hand, tend to reserve such a vaunted term for only the greatest of cinematic endeavors - those films that truly deserve such accolades. The last time I awarded a film such an honour was about a year and a half ago, when I bestowed such a monicker on Terrence Malick's brilliant The Tree of Life. Before that, one needs to go back another two years to Quentin Tarantino's 2009 work, Inglourious Basterds. Before that, one must go back another two years to Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood. A truly rare thing indeed. Well now I think it is about time we dusted off that rarely used title and once again bestow said honour upon a new film. In this case, the masterpiece we speak of, is P. T. Anderson's (there he is again) rather appropriately titled film The Master.
Just the director's sixth film in seventeen years of filmmaking, and his first since the aforementioned 2007's There Will Be Blood, the long awaited and highly anticipated The Master is the the kind of filmmaking that will be looked back upon a hundred, two hundred years from now, as a classic of early twenty-first century cinema. Wellesian in nature, Fordian in scope and Kubrickian in style, Anderson collects together every aspect of moviemaking, from acting to writing to editing to cinematography, to the sound, look and music of the film, and coheses it all into a mesmerizing picture of hope and faith and the folly of humankind - a sort of, and please pardon the rather cliché sound of the next few words, visual and spectral poetry of storytelling. Bringing together a real world malaise in the form of Joaquin Phoenix's cragged, simian-like psychotic ex-sailor, and an otherworldy calmness in the form of Philip Seymour Hoffman's cool and collected cult leader, PTA has forged something from air and earth, from fire and water, to create something akin to a fifth and final element - pure imagination, pure cinema.
Now there are those who have opposed such a film. Those, including a vocally critical Tom Cruise, who worked with Anderson in his Magnolia, take offense to what the film is - supposedly and ostensibly - really all about. In reality, the film is about a mixed-up ex Navy man named Freddie Quell, played with as much bravura by Phoenix as one can imagine - very probably his single greatest performance to date, and perhaps one of the finest performances in not only the past decade but dare I say in all of film history - who has lost his way in the world until he meets up with a seductively open-armed prophet named Lancaster Dodd, but referred to by most as the titular Master. The story is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and the creation of Scientology, here referred to as The Cause, and this of course is making some people, including many so-called high-falutin' Hollywood types, quite a bit nervous. Now, Anderson claims this is not the story of Scientology, and even though Hoffman bears a rather striking resemblance to the late Mr. Hubbard, and the chronology of the birth of Hubbard's cultish religion and the events transpiring in the film are pretty much dead on, this is indeed a story about something more universal than one man's quest for answers. This is the story of lost souls and what gives them hope and what takes that hope away.
Freddie is that human animal, that lost soul, that Dodd rails against but also an animal Dodd needs desperately to save, not for Freddie's sake, but for Dodd's own selfish goals of proving his teachings as the truth. Meanwhile Dodd represents, and for a time acts as that father/master figure that Freddie so desperately needs and longs for - even if he will never admit that to himself. These two opposite forces - nature versus nurture if you will - will inevitably undo one another if left to their own devices, and it is Phoenix and Hoffman in their brilliant portrayals (can we say career best) of these lost souls - each one lost in their own unique way and each one both needing the other and brought to their proverbial knees by the other - that make Anderson's already glowing, clamoring creature of a movie (this film works as the inner world yin to PTA's other million-headed beast movie There Will Be Blood's batshitcrazy outer-skinned yang) a near perfect creation. And on top of these counterintuative and counterbalanced, eternally warring performances, we also get the usually doe-eyed Amy Adams pulling off her own version of visceral attack, using her typical sparkle as rapid cannon fire. All-in-all, the film is one of the best performed films in a long long while - and Anderson locks his actors into the frame, 70mm or 35mm, with the precision of a surgeon.
As I stated earlier, the film may be disturbing to those of a certain bent, as Anderson cinematically turns L. Ron Hubbard into even more of a false prophet than he is already seen as by most of the thinking world, by more than alluding to the fact that perhaps he, along with his filmic counterpart, Lancaster Dodd, just made it all up as he went along, creating out of his sci-fi-fueled imagination a pseudo-scientific, quasi-religious cult of personality. Yeah, I can see why his disciples, very much including his celebrity poster boy Cruise, are opposed to such an interpretation - though officially this is not the L. Ron Hubbard story or an expose on Scientology - and would like it to be shot down in flames. Too bad for them that it is such a work of art that it will most assuredly go into the future canonical annals of cinematic history. Too bad for them. The film may also be rather off-putting for that gaggle of so-called average filmgoers who want their entertainment simple, safe and uncluttered, and will most likely be looked upon poorly because of said group's perceived notion of strangeness (a thing many erroneously equate with bad filmmaking), but once again, too bad for them. Too bad for them indeed. For the rest of us, it is a welcome boon of creative filmmaking in today's world of simple, safe and uncluttered entertainment. Thank god for that and thank god for Paul Thomas Anderson. Take that.