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The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

February 11, 2013

So beautiful or so what is the title of a Paul Simon song which came to my mind while I was watching The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson, this film is a stunning beauty, so what? The Master isn’t the awaited/feared L. Ron Hubbard biopic and the Master of the title (played by a Philip Seymour Hoffman at the top of his acting) isn’t the central character of the story, the real protagonist is Freddie Quell (I am not a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, but he is very good here) we meet him at the end of WWII – he was a sailor on a warship which distinguished itself fighting the Japanese – and he came out of the war with mental troubles, alcohol troubles, temper troubles. When the Master – his name in the film is Lancaster Dodd buy nobody calls him that except the Police – meets Freddie Quell it’s quite obvious why they are attracted to each other, Freddie is a lost soul – the Master calls him “aberrant” – he seems in need of a guide, while Dodd is the leader of a religious sect which feeds itself with weak and deranged people like Freddie: a slave needs a master, a master needs slaves.

The film is set in the 1950s and the side stories which could have been developed so expanding the film’s narrative palette have been willingly neglected by Anderson. Once again he has focused his attention on two male characters (PTA has declared he started writing the screenplay during the post-production of There Will Be Blood) but he never allows us to get a full grip of them, after 137 minutes of film we know nothing of the Master (the reasons and means feeding his megalomania) while gathering only a few glimpses of Freddie; furthermore the film is full of characters but only one of them – the Master’s wife, played convincingly by Amy Adams – is a substantial presence. Less is good I agree, but veering on the abstruse is not: what is the point of investing in three scenes and twenty minutes of film to depict a man obsessed with sex then forget about it for the rest of the movie?

The lack of a powerful story is made tolerable by Anderson’s mastery of filmmaking technique: every single shot is a pleasure to watch, sometimes – the boat sailing in the San Francisco night is one for sure – you would almost desire to freeze the film and watching it a frame at a time to better appreciate and enjoy the careful composition, the gorgeous photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and every detail created by Anderson’s skilled group of assistants: so beautiful, so what? In the end the inconclusive relationship between the Master and Freddie mirrors the one between this film and its spectator, please have the courage to say something mister Anderson, say it loud and clear.

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