Like a child lost in a hedge maze — running into walls, stumbling around, retracing steps, losing sight of time and place — “The Master” unfolds as a complex, elliptical story. Events appear to happen within other events: The film flips back and forth in time without transition.
For any other film, such a serpentine structure would cause its story to crumble under the weight of its multitudinous layers, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial efforts keep “The Master” going strong at all times. This brave masterpiece shows Joaquin Phoenix in his most brilliant performance as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War II veteran. In 1950, Freddie is attracted to a cult named The Cause and led by a man known only as The Master, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his wife Peggy, actress Amy Adams.
But to what does the cult’s name refer? Why is Freddie an alcoholic? What are the cult’s and Freddie’s goals? The audience will not be spoon-fed the answers, nor will the story unfurl in strict adherence to cause and effect. For some, this will be frustrating. For others, this will be perplexing. For many, this will be rewarding.
The film’s ability to elicit a number of emotional responses from the audience — even if those responses are simply depression and confusion — is reminiscent of director Stanley Kubrick. When modern filmmakers are compared to Kubrick, it is frequently an exaggeration, but nothing in recent years has come closer to reincarnating his style than this film. Long gone are the techniques and styles of Anderson’s previous films. “The Master” is Anderson at his very finest and his very coldest. Mihai Malaimaire Jr.’sstunning, harsh, elegant cinematography conveys a sense of the film’s power. The drab blues and bright whites immerse the audience in the film.
The viewer may be lost and confused while watching Anderson’s deliberately cerebral, labyrinthine work of art. But “The Master” is partly about the search for the self and who has power in that quest; is it he who searches for the way or those who show the way? “The Master” asks this enigmatic question in a 137-minute visual essay on loss, lust, sustenance and disillusionment. Viewers will be unable to avoid an emotional response to this film.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 13 print edition. Alex Greenberger is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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