The Master (2012) ★★★★
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 143 mins
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Controversy and mystery have surrounded Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master since its conception in late 2009. Unsurprisingly word of the film’s religious cult foundations drew inevitable comparisons to Scientology, well renowned for its Hollywood A-list advocates. Rumour has it that Anderson held a screening for Tom Cruise, who starred in his sprawling, soapy Magnolia (1999), to a mixed reaction. Although connotations are implicit The Master is a very different animal from what was anticipated. This is a stylistic continuation from There Will Be Blood (2007), less ambitious but somehow more elusive in content.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a world war two veteran lost in 1950’s America. He drifts from town to town holding down jobs briefly. One evening seeking refuge he stows away on a yacht. When discovered he is taken in by its owner Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a new movement known as The Cause. Freddie stays with the group travelling along the East Coast and becoming Dodd’s right hand man but his erratic behaviour and close friendship with Dodd causes friction within the group particularly Dodd’s wife Mary Anne (Amy Adams).
Direct lines can be drawn but a dissection of Scientology this is not. Dodd’s undoubtedly shares similarities with L Ron Hubbard, himself an oddball fantasist. The Cause and its new age methods of past life regression have some roots in Hubbard’s dianetics methodology but Anderson’s agenda is not to take a scalpel to this influence. If anything The Master follows a long-held fascination with sons and father figures, generally surrogate. This is most notable in porn drama Boogie Nights (1997), a film essentially about family, with director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) but can be traced back to debut Hard Eight (1996) and is evident in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.
Quell is a bundle of neurosis: traumatised by war, haunted by lost love, sex obsessed, alcoholic and prone to random bouts of violence. Dodd bonds with him over a love of alcohol, Freddie being a dab hand at producing his own toxic brew. The central fixation revolves around how Dodd will attempt to reprogram him and these scenes are as taxing in their repetition on Freddie as they are the audience (surely the point). Freddie refuses to buy into The Cause’s ideology and this comes to a head in a stand out scene where both men are thrown in jail and opinions are explosively aired. Despite this Freddie is loyal to Dodd and physically attacks any vocal detractors. Dodd in turn finds in Freddie someone who is a reality check but also indulges his eccentricity and sense of adventure, the latter being subdued by his figure head status. Their relationship revolves around power play as much as it heals and nourishes and in this sense the background of The Master offers a perfect platform for this recurring Anderson theme to be put under the microscope.
This is Phoenix’s first film since he “quit” acting to turn rapper which was documented in I’m Still Here (2010), an extended practical joke and bizarre career deviation. His return is searing and certainly the performance thus far of his career. He is that rare quantity who can seemingly alter his entire physicality. Think of the bulked up alpha male roles in James Grey’s crime dramas The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007) and then the limp, fey villain of Gladiator (2000). Here he is hunched over, all mannerisms and facial tics, one side fixed in a permanent squint. It makes for compulsive viewing and despite his flaws Freddie is as innocent as he is damaged and volatile, a difficult trick to pull off considering the extreme nature of the character.
Most had anticipated Dodd to be the showier role but Hoffman compliments in a surprisingly calmer capacity. Dodd becomes more ill at ease as the film progresses, trapped and expected to continually advance his theories which always lay on shifting ground. The power behind the throne is Mary Jane. A bathroom scene where she admonishes Dodd for drinking demonstrates the authority she exerts over him. This is a coiled performance of inner machinations from Adams. A scene where she stares at Freddie across a crowded room during a gathering cuts right through the joyous, bohemian atmosphere.
Anderson’s first two films marked him as heir apparent to Martin Scorsese. Hard Eight could be a distant cousin to Mean Streets (1973) with its grubby, noir inflected setting, albeit minus the seamlessly incidental structure and complete immersion into locale of the latter. Boogie Nights seemed to be the clearest indicator yet that this would be the case, a whirling dervish of a film punctuated with punchy camera and editing techniques blazed through with period music ala Goodfellas (1990). Romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) is an anomaly. A change of tact, light and playful but ill-judged falling between the mainstream and experimental not helped by the inclusion of Adam Sandler.
The Master has the measured, epic grandeur of There Will Be Blood. Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography is exquisite as is Terence Malick collaborator Jack Fisk’s production design. Certain shots burn into the psyche: Freddie lying atop the crow’s nest of a boat, framed by the ocean or Freddie bolting from the farm across a field into the mist (perhaps a visual metaphor for his life). However, unlike Anderson’s predecessor it is hard to pin down. There Will Be Blood knitted together its historical setting with religion and capitalism in eternal conflict granting it a modern context. The Master lacks this level of insight. It maintains a Kubrickian distance throughout, flawless but slightly removed. In this respect it reminded me of Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon (1975), frame by frame of visual perfection but difficult to crack the exterior. Admittedly the psycho drama on show here makes for a pivot more gripping than Ryan O’Neal’s rise and fall but the overall sentiment still remains.
Despite this I am still contemplating the intricacies of The Master weeks later. It demands a repeat viewing which, like some of Kubrick’s back catalogue, I sense will bring further reward. It continues to mark Paul Thomas Anderson out as a unique voice in American cinema and where he goes next will be highly anticipated. Immaculate in design, glacial in execution, but an enigma well worth trying to solve.