Tuesday, 27 November 2012

'The Master' review:

Aside from general tardiness, the reason I have taken so long to review 'The Master' - in spite of the fact I made sure I saw it first thing on the day of release - is because I haven't been entirely sure what to make of it. I make no secret of the fact that director Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Punch-Drunk Love' is my favourite film, which means watching the filmmaker's first feature since the almost equally brilliant 'There Will Be Blood' comes with a certain weight of expectation and a desire on my part to avoid a reactionary response which I might regret later! Mostly because I suspected (and continue to suspect) that his latest is a film which will gain a lot from repeated viewings.

'The Master' is not, at least to my mind, an immediately gratifying film. There are immediately gratifying elements, to be sure - the cinematography and Anderson's use of camera is one of the most obvious, as are the two central performances - but this story-light script is much more of a character study and exploration of various themes (such as religion as institutionalism and whether it is truly possible to be your own master). There's nothing wrong with that at all, and in fact the most interesting films are usually about characters rather than a narrative sequence of events, but 'The Master' takes this to an extreme, with very little happening outside of its broader exploration of themes.

The story boils down to: a mentally troubled man (the chameleon-like Jaoquin Phoenix) leaves the Navy after WWII and finds it difficult to maintain a job or relationship upon his return home. Circumstances lead to a chance encounter with a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose sheer force of personality and assumed place of authority subdue Phoenix and make him feel as though he belongs, becoming the cult's least questioning acolyte, intolerant of the slightest criticism of Hoffman and given to violence against perceived enemies of The Cause (a clear analogue of Scientology). Things happen, of course, but they aren't presented as a series of cause and effect events. Rather, various encounters between Phoenix and Hoffman, and all the incidents in between, serve as vehicles to explore the film's themes. Making it a difficult but potentially rewarding watch.

Hoffman's every mannerism and intonation is inspired, with the master already one of his best characters, whilst his customary ability to switch from gentility to rage is exploited here to its very best, and it's his scenes opposite the quiet, unhinged menace of Phoenix that are the film's clear highlight. In fact an interrogation scene between the two and their final scene together at the end - in which Hoffman delivers a truly brilliant monologue - are among the best individual scenes Anderson has ever filmed. Meanwhile Jonny Greenwood again provides the score, which whilst not as visceral and consistently unsettling as his work on 'There Will Be Blood' (or Jon Brion's mesmeric score for 'Punch-Drunk Love') is still one of the year's best.

I'll return to this film in the near future and will probably come back to talk about it some more when it's clearer in my own mind. In the meantime, it goes without saying that it's worth seeing and a masterpiece in so many ways, even if I'm not yet certain how great it is overall.

'The Master' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on general release now in the UK.


  1. I have never read this reviewer before, but I must say - as an avid, ardent film fan - that this is one of the best reviews of any film I have ever read. It is well thought out and precise, yet open to the possibility of metamorphosis; I have never read any review, by an amateur or professional, where said reviewer admits "I am not quite sure yet" - or something to that effect. Many films are like fine wine, they need time to breath, for better or worse, and this reviewer admits that. Kudos.