(Minor spoiler at the end.)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film The Master is being hailed as a new American classic by many critics. This is not the first time the words “American classic” have been paired together in regards to Anderson’s work. Five years ago critics were saying the same thing about There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s loose adaption of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
It has become evident with Anderson’s last two films; both period pieces, both providing comments on the American man’s greed and fragmented mental state, both featuring an indisputably captivating performance by lead actors (Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix), and each a standing symbol of patient filmmaking, that this writer-director has carved his place amongst not only the great filmmakers of his time but in all of American cinema.
Anderson may be best known for the 1997 picture Boogie Nights but it is clear that his ability and style transcends grandiose subject matter like the pornography industry, drug abuse, and violence (all of which are highly entertaining and showcased well in the film).
The 1999 film Magnolia really marked the day Hollywood handed Paul Thomas Anderson the key to the city; the freedom to make any film he desired and he pushed that sports car to the limit, crashed through the barricade and left the audience to watch as it engulfed in flames.
Since then Anderson has shown great versatility in his characters, storylines, and casting decisions; particularly when he showed the world that notorious goofball Adam Sandler had some serious acting chops in the one of a kind art house flick, Punch-Drunk Love.
But it was There Will Be Blood that marked a more distinct change in his filmmaking choices. This was a different film. It was slow, calculated, and mostly subdued except for a few casualties in the oil fields and bowling alleys.
The Master follows a very similar pattern. Phoenix’s portrayal of a post-WWII unhinged and impressionable drunk is a good rival for Day-Lewis’ greed-driven oil tycoon. In this film, Anderson again looks at Man with an unflinching eye. He does not cut to the most entertaining or high octane moments of a man’s life but instead zeroes in on the subtle, defining moments of a man’s character.
Anderson asks the questions of life that everyone finds themselves asking at one time. Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, seeks someone with all the answers and believes he finds it in Lancaster Dodd, as played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Film has the inherent problem of relying on an ending; some viable closure for the story that just never happens in real life. Life keeps going. The sun always rises again even after the credits roll on a particular chapter of our lives. Anderson closes this film’s unanswerable questions beautifully.
With all its ambiguity, Freddie Quell leaves the audience with the assurance and self-actualization that there are no masters in this world but instead people, knowledgeable of personal flaws and understanding of the ability to control when necessary.