Direction: Paul Thomas Anderson
Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rating: **** 1/2
The Oscars season is over but some of the widely anticipated movies of last year are only now trickling into our multiplexes. While Michael Haneke's Best Foreign Film winner, Amour, is tentatively slated for April, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained will ride into town next week.
Meanwhile, The Master finally gets a release too, albeit without adequate publicity or even a press preview. It's almost as if the local distributors were hoping no one will notice. Under the circumstances, cinephiles would do will to catch this challenging psychodrama before it's too late.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature film (his previous effort was There Will Be Blood (2007) focuses on the see-saw relationship, circa the mid-20th century, between a traumatised veteran of the Second World War and the self-styled guru of a pseudo-religious organization.
An alcoholic, violence-prone loner, the former US marine (Phoenix) stumbles aboard a yacht chartered by the charismatic cult leader (Hoffman).
Offering the hope of salvation to lost souls, the pompous guru describes himself as "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher, but above all a hopelessly inquisitive man".
With icy precision, Anderson draws us into the battle of wills between the two men who may seem worlds apart but are interdependent in their needs.
Their camaraderie eventually leads to emotional conflict. The climax is as abrupt as it is unpredictable. The film's staccato rhythm is augmented by the background score and the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
The cast is flawless.
Philip Seymour Hoffman manages the difficult task of making his larger-than-life character believable. Joaquin Phoenix turns in an astonishing portrayal as his hedonistic disciple. As the charlatan's deceptively submissive wife, Amy Adams is equally effective.
The elliptical, at times perplexing narrative is likely to alienate some viewers. For the rest, The Master makes for an immensely rewarding experience.