When Howard Hawks was asked what his definition of a great movie was, he replied with a simple "Three great scenes, no bad scenes." The Master more than fits this bill; therefore it's a great American film, perhaps the best of the year so far. Yes, it is cold and distant to its characters and almost revels in its inaccessibility, and it doesn't truly care whether you like it or not.
A lot of films are like eager puppies, they want you to love them and cherish them. But like Paul Thomas Anderson's previous masterpiece There Will Be Blood, The Master could not care less. It just exists in front of you in its truest and purest form and expects you to do the intellectual legwork. An American film that asks you to think for yourself, what are the odds on that one?
It seems almost impossible that Anderson made a film more distant and inaccessible than There Will Be Blood. While acknowledging I saw something great, I was confounded on what to truly think about There Will Be Blood until I watched it at least a couple more times. Now I think it's perhaps the one great American film of the last decade. My reaction to my first viewing of The Master is double that of There Will Be Blood, so I don't see any other way but to call this a somewhat incomplete review which will become clearer when I lay eyes on it a couple more times.
Paul Thomas Anderson is perhaps the only artist working now who truly deserves the moniker "Great American Director". Sidney Lumet and Robert Altman have passed away, and Clint Eastwood is hit or miss these days, unless he's working with an empty chair. I'm definitely one of those people who resemble him most to Kubrick, even though he dedicated There Will Be Blood to Altman.
Like Kubrick, he's a perfectionist who works on his art so meticulously that it allows him to release a film every five years or so. But with their gloriously perfect compositions and their approach to concise storytelling stripped of all the fat, they are well worth the wait. And just like Kubrick, his later films need to be seen multiple times to be truly appreciated.
The film doesn't have a single scene that is superfluous and unnecessary. The performances, especially by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are stellar. The reason it feels disconnected might be because its meticulousness of dissecting the science of a cult, inspired heavily by the beginnings of Scientology. The way that Hoffman's mysterious and charismatic Master lays out the "truth and meaning" behind his religion, simply named "The Cause", is in itself disconnected and sporadic. Anderson simply puts the viewer in the front seat and lets them partake in the confusion.
The patterns of a more traditional film dealing with cults are all there, but are handled in the most direct manner devoid of sensationalism. First comes the charismatic and tactful introduction, in the form of a glorious therapy session, which might the film's greatest scene. Then comes the disillusionment, but instead of a convenient twist like The Master turning out to be child molester or something equally devious, the end comes with more of a whimper.
Also, Shot in 65mm, The Master might be the most beautiful looking film you will see all year.
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