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The Master - Film Review

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by Matt Elliot Taylor (subscribe)
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon
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'The Master': A Fitting Title for PT Anderson
Theatrical Release Poster (image courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

I will preface this review by stating that I am a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and his films.

The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson's latest project and although it is only in limited release, it is being met with much acclaim. Set in 1950, it centers on WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is sex-obsessed, an alcoholic and tends to burst into fits of rage. He happens upon a philosophical movement known as The Cause, led by the very enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Lancaster is immediately interested in the wayward Freddie and thus takes him under his wing, promoting the ideologies of his so-called cult across America.

Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman) develop a strangely intense friendship. (image courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

The leading position in the press on the meaning of Anderson's latest is that it has to do with Scientology and its ideological origins. In spite of the fact that Anderson has admitted to appropriating ideas of the late L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of the Church of Scientology and arguably the inspiration for Hoffman's character), The Master is more about the odd-yet-intense relationship between Freddie and Lancaster as they inadvertently help each other identify their traumas, flaws and fears.

This is a strangely intense and enlightening film - not in its story, content or themes but in its characters. Like many of the main players in Anderson's films such as Boogie Nights [1997], Magnolia [1999] and There Will Be Blood [2007], these people are damaged souls searching for their place in the world. All they want is to fit in and be loved and cared for. The Master is no exception to this rule - Freddie's journey is one of the ever-elusive comforts of affection. Phoenix captures this desire in the Freddie character brilliantly and while his feelings and attitudes are fully realized, there is still so much more to him than we can see or comprehend. This serves as the centrepiece to Anderson's film - we may take it at face value or if we wish to know more there is enough insightful material in the screenplay that we can go digging to our heart's content.

The Master is not a film of intellect but a film of intense emotion, a story of action and reaction. In doing so, Paul Thomas Anderson endeavours to show us that we wander through life looking for the next person to latch onto and put our trust and love into. As Lancaster advises his protégé in the film, "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world."

This is an extraordinary film from an extraordinary filmmaker, and may require several viewings (like his other films). The Master is not for everyone, but for fans of Anderson or for anyone who wants to experience something a little different, here it is in spades.

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Why? The long-awaited new film from an auteur extraordinaire
When: In cinemas now - limited national release
Where: Your local cinema
Cost: Check your local cinema for details
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