After taking forever to reach us down here in New Zealand, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master finally has a limited release this week. I’m not quite sure how I felt about it, so this isn’t a review so much as just a few thoughts I had about the film.
Despite the lack of a best picture Oscar nomination, The Master is possibly the most highly regarded film of 2012. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted directors around; his previous film There Will Be Blood is right amongst the best films of the last 10 years, and features one of history’s great lead performances from Daniel Day Lewis.
Expectations were obviously pretty high going into this movie.
In a lot of ways, The Master doesn’t disappoint. It is impeccably crafted from the very first frame. In my view, Anderson’s greatest strength is his skill at telling a story through character rather than traditional narrative, and the characters of The Master are just so richly written, and played to near perfection. If Joaquin Phoenix’s work feels a little big for most of the movie, it comes together brilliantly in the closing scenes, a complete performance. Even better is Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd, and as good as he always is, this is a role he will be remembered for. Holding her own against such imposing leading men is Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, a fascinating character I would have liked to have seen much more of, and, in typical Anderson fashion, an array of excellent supporting players including Jesse Plemons and Laura Dern enrich the world of the film.
Anderson’s films are always tough nuts to crack, aren’t exactly the easiest things to enjoy, and with the exception of Punch Drunk Love perhaps, exist in some pretty murky territory. This might be the reason why, despite all of its strengths, truthfully The Master left me cold. It’s like gazing upon a huge feat of engineering. You can admire the construction of a 100-level skyscraper, wonder at the level of skill in its creation, but you can’t really connect emotionally with it. It may be impressive, but is absolutely unfeeling. That’s The Master for me. It is a film that feels like it is defying you to enjoy it, as if Anderson is intentionally keeping you at arm’s length, and I was never able to connect with it beyond an admiration of the craftsmanship.
That said, it is without question a film that demands to be seen, and seen, and seen again. I’m sure there are untold nooks and crannies to be explored upon closer analysis, and it’s likely that I will grow to appreciate it even more. For now though, I’m mostly at a loss regarding The Master, and that might be the best thing about it. Few filmmakers have the talent to provoke such an unusual reaction in me, and it’s a feeling I choose to savour and enjoy, rather than be frustrated by.