Jordan Schwarzenberger on the genius of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and why it was an injustice for the Academy to overlook the film in the Best Picture contenders at this year’s Oscars…
Year on year the Best Picture category at the Oscars is always one for controversy. To the condemnation of the film going public, it seems consistent that every year one snub becomes a general outrage. For me and many others alike, the greatest shock was the absence of in my opinion the finest film of 2012, The Master. With films such as Silver Linings Playbook, a well acted yet barely Oscar worthy picture being nominated; the absence of The Master was a true disappointment.
Now to say last year was an exceptional year for cinema is an understatement. Films such as Lincoln, the Best Picture winning Argo and the beautiful Amour helped to construct a quality year for film, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Master-piece (see what I did there) should go equally side by side. After 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the anticipation for The Master was heavy amongst both Anderson fans and serious cinema goers alike, and when the film arrived last September, it duly delivered to the style, precision and emotive impact which we’ve come to thoroughly adore over the last 17 years of his film making career.
The Master centres on Freddie Quell (played viciously and powerfully by Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, sex obsessed and traumatized World War II veteran, who is struggling to adapt to post war life in late 40s America. After failed jobs and violent outbursts on the public, Quell in his emotionally vulnerable and intoxicated state, makes his way onto a ship, where he meets a mysterious, confident and charismatic man named Lancaster Dodd (played by a very well cast Phillip Seymour Hoffman); the leader of ‘The Cause’. Quell, living in a state of social limbo, is taken in with the prospect of ‘being’ that ‘The Cause’ seems to offer, and joins Dodd and the crew with their mission to spread their methods along the east coast of America. We soon discover that Dodd’s controversial ideologies and persuasive techniques are overshadowed by his charismatic and compelling character, which is part of his seemingly definitive position as the master of this tribal-esque cult. As his time with ‘The Cause’ increases, Quell begins to change as a person, and becomes a somewhat brain washed man under the reigns of Dodd.
What’s so beautiful about this film is its incredible and consistent symbolism; for example, the metaphor of the ship being representative of ‘The Cause’ itself, as Dodd is the ship’s captain as well as The Cause’s master. This is utilized further by Anderson in the beautiful opening shots of the flowing, spontaneous and ever-changing ocean, representative of Quell’s state of mind, as well as being a utopia of peace and tranquility which he aspires to have. When these shots are shown in beautiful 70mm film, they make the audience feel this state of calm, to then juxtapose to the unclear chaos in the mind of Quell. There is also a mysterious sequence of shots of him slightly crazed on an isolated beach, a metaphor again for his state of mind, as while the film progresses, his beach becomes more desolate, whilst Quell as a man becomes more outwardly calm and stable, transforming into a product of ‘The Cause’. Anderson is always one to use symbolism in his films, and this is one of his incredible strengths as a director, as he helps to justify his messages and subtext with his symbolism and brutal imagery – one of the stand out qualities of The Master. This attention to detail is an aspect of the film which brings it above those in the Best Picture category. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t saying that every film should have symbols and metaphors to have quality, however some of the most powerful films in history do so in order to help provoke empathy and emotions in the audience, which in The Master works to great effect.
The cinematography, the perfect cast, and the stellar direction of Paul Thomas Anderson blend in a swirling sea of cinematic mastery, and after leaving me feeling punched solemnly in the chest, I almost felt as if the film had a power over me, much like Dodd had on Quell, and Peggy Dodd (played by the fantastic Amy Adams) had on her husband – a subtle yet very effective play on their dynamics, as she was in fact the true master of the film. For any motion picture to provoke such raw and gut wrenching feelings, with such style and beauty in its presentation to match, it outright deserved to be recognized. Thankfully the three leads – Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams – were at least all nominated for their acting, which is a consolation for a film that I believe, is a true presentation of cinema at its finest and most powerful.