The Master Telegraph Review…. ‘bold’ and ‘extraordinary’ seem utterly inadequate.

07/09/2012 | By

The Telegraph has this to say:
Robbie Collin grants Paul Thomas Anderson’s absurdist melodrama ‘landmark American movie’ status.

Many of the pictures in competition at this year’s Venice International Film Festival have been a touch flavourless, so thank heavens for The Master, which goes down like a gut-scorching slug of firewater, and has left critics’ heads swimming and their extremities tingling.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s absurdist melodrama premiered at the Festival on Saturday night, and like many of his previous films it is a burrowing down into the psyche of the United States from a key point in that nation’s history.

The Master is set in the early 1950s, amid America’s search for a deeper sense of happiness and purpose in the aftermath of the Second World War. One man believes he has found a solution: Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher” and leader of The Cause, a cult that is not entirely unlike the Church of Scientology.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter and former naval officer, stumbles onto a San Francisco pleasure boat on which a Dodd family wedding is taking place, and the pair strike up a flirtatious rapport. Freddie is welcomed into The Cause with open arms.

“You inspire him,” mews Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), as her husband scribbles busily at his latest volume of teachings. With every passing scene, Dodd’s grip tightens around Freddie’s mind, and indeed the film itself: Hoffman seeps demagogic charisma here, delivering his nonsensical pronouncements with total conviction, and as I left the cinema I could feel his words still inching around under my skin, like tiny caterpillars.

But Phoenix and Adams are also both sensational, and while the triangular relationship between the three leads is almost surreally complex, the actors make it effortlessly intelligible. Many individual moments left me reeling: Dodd drunkenly singing a folk song at a Cause gathering, when all the female guests’ clothes suddenly vanish, for example, or Peggy haranguing Freddie into believing that her eyes are changing colour – and then they do.

All three performances are intensified by the hallucinogenically vivid colours and dreamy shallow focus afforded by the use of an antique Panavision Super 70 camera and 70mm film stock. Often, The Master looks like a Douglas Sirk film running a high fever: angled lighting leaves the casts’ eyes in shadow while their foreheads and cheeks glisten sweatily. Meanwhile in Jonny Greenwood’s score, Debussy-like melodies meander over rhythmic percussive chopping.

This is the equally, but very differently, deranged cousin of Anderson’s previous picture, the nihilistic Western There Will Be Blood: while that film’s monstrous oil prospector Daniel Plainview was certain that life had no purpose beyond profit, Hoffman’s reluctant prophet is a man who prizes purpose. After one viewing, The Master already feels like a landmark American movie. It makes words like ‘bold’ and ‘extraordinary’ seem utterly inadequate.

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