Anderson has never been a director that makes a film for everyone to enjoy. In the vein of auteur directors like Terrence Malick, David Lynch, and Michael Haneke, Anderson’s films aren’t necessarily the most accessible despite the seeming mainstream status. Films like Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and There Will Be Blood (2007) are reflective, tensional, studies of human behavior, all things that the average film-goer most of the time will not embrace. In The Master, Anderson constructs, absolutely magnificently I might add, two dynamic, real, and tangible men that the audience can both imagine knowing, loving, and loathe. It’s the writing masterpiece of the year.
Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) gets the best character blueprints of any player to interpret. Hands down, the sharpest and best written character of the film is purely Lancaster. Anderson concentrates on his motivation and responses, giving him an arc that the audience can both easily and willingly travel with him. Hoffman’s natural talents as an actor and finding himself in a character are showcased here with intensity and composure. His often seemingly blood-filled hot-headed dialogue encompasses some of the best moments of the film. It’s evident Hoffman is not only enjoying himself but enjoying Lancaster. He’s both repulsive but completely enamoring in structure, word, and persona. Anderson may have created the great oxymoron of cinema this century. Hoffman is damn-near perfect.
On the flip side, Joaquin Phoenix not only inhabits a character never seen by him or any actor before but assembles a man from scratch, beat by beat, trait by trait. It’s not just the finest acting performance of the year, not only the finest acting performance this millennium, it could be the finest work of the past twenty years or so. I can only recollect a handful of actors that have the gumption to stand toe-to-toe with Phoenix’s work here. His Freddie Quell is utterly unpredictable; strutting, glaring, and holding an explosive mentality that could detonate at any moment. Phoenix controls it, even though there are many instances where you feel like he’s losing it. Quell is frightening, admitting his evil, unbalance, and instability. Phoenix externalizes this in his zealous and disturbing actions but more importantly internalizes it in body language and character beats that not many actors dedicated to the craft can achieve. Joaquin Phoenix is not just Oscar-worthy, he’s Oscar-bound. It’s the performance you can’t deny, the performance of the year. Let’s hope they don’t.
Where Phoenix and Hoffman are strident and vociferous, Amy Adams is internal and subtle, but always at the brim. Peggy Dodd is multifaceted and extremely complex. Adams understands her amazingly well, making intricate features that are surprising for “good-girl” Adams. She gets dirty and dominating in not only a prolific manner but in a sultry method. Adams is a revelation. Laura Dern is brief but memorable; a missed actress who should be doing more accessible work.
Jonny Greenwood’s score once again, it’s absolutely brilliant, well-placed, astonishing and among the best composers this year. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., cinematographer extraordinaire, is just that, extraordinary. Malaimare is painting scenes on a film canvas and we are witnessing the artist work. It’s as if we’re watching Bob Ross teach us the art of capture. Expect Cinematography to be named among Oscar’s lineup in 2013 along with Film Editing (Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty) and Production Design (David Crank and Jack Fisk). It goes without saying, Picture, Director, and Screenplay should be there alongside them.
The Scientology subject is there and there are connections that can be made but are they obvious or intended? Not necessarily. It’s not evident or offensive. I only hope that Paul Thomas Anderson and the film doesn’t suffer from anyone assuming that its a slight at the group or any particular one for that matter.
Though the film takes time to warm up to, once the film soars, it’s soars high. While The Master is not for everyone and there could be many detractors, there are three scenes in particular that are masterpieces in filmmaking. Anderson levels and executes a difficult subject with no fear or hesitation. He also knows his characters, what they are, who they are, and marrying the actors to them in a way not many directors can do. Anderson unites film with art again and The Master is their bond. It’s good to see them together again.