Comparisons between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Best Picture-nominated epic masterpiece There Will Be Blood and his latest film are inevitable if perhaps a little unfair; after all, the former is a sprawling, brutal meditation on the clash between capitalism at its most boundlessly ambitious and faith, while The Master is a smaller, more intimate existential drama about post-WW2 malaise. If not soaring to the same heights as his previous effort, this hugely ambitious film – marvellously performed by a top-notch cast – at least feels like the director at his most unrestrained.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is the guiding force through this opaque odyssey, a WW2 veteran suffering from both alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder as he tries to adjust to life following the war. After drifting around several settlements, Quell ends up drunkenly sneaking his way onto a boat, which happens to belong to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a nascent philosophical, pseudo-scientific movement called The Cause. Dodd finds himself oddly taken with the troubled man, offering him a place in the movement, which Freddie contradictorily attempts to assimilate into and reject, much to the chagrin of Dodd’s suspicious wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who soon enough wants him gone.
All too much has been made of what has been termed Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Scientology film”, for while The Cause draws clear parallels with the practises of dianetics, this is merely a backdrop against which to examine spiritual restlessness in the wake of WW2. If Anderson’s film seems to, with its suggestion that Dodd is writing the governing rules of his would-be-cult as he goes along, be critiquing these sorts of movements, that is to somewhat miss the point.
Anderson seems less concerned with mud-slinging and more intrigued by the desperate means by which people will clamour to what they perceive as personal meaning, no matter how absurd it might seem. Quell, an impulsive brute at the best of times and mentally ill at the worst, spends the majority of his time on-screen flailing about in one way or another, while Dodd, the pretentious “intellectual”, preys on this, keeping up a stone-wall veneer that holds firm well past the confines of the picture itself. Whether the viewer feels this is directly analogous to Scientology is, of course, down to personal taste.
With a scant narrative that’s unexpectedly simplistic and in the slack third act more than a little meandering, the comparisons to There Will Be Blood feel wholly unjust; if Blood has a tight character arc despite its lengthy runtime, The Master is an amorphous, deliberate study without any arc to speak of. Quell is introduced to us, he joins The Cause, and it ends without much in the way of catharsis or resolution for the viewer, slamming the lid shut on its already meagre commercial appeal, if somewhat refreshingly refusing to shoehorn character change and emotional epiphanies down our throat. Don’t mistake that to mean this is a cold, sexless affair, though; Anderson peppers Freddie’s uneasy journey with surprising bouts of humour, and despite his prickly exterior, one at least sympathises with Freddie to an extent, compared to Anderson’s previous protagonist, a towering shade overwhelmed by greed.
The real reason, then, to see The Master is not so much for a twisty or even emotionally gratifying narrative, but the astounding actor’s showcase that Anderson has created. Phoenix, starring in his first film since his infamous mockumentary stunt I’m Still Here, is a revelation, rattling through Anderson’s verbose screenplay with an edgy aplomb, while imbuing it with unsettling physical tics which never allow us to forget Freddie’s seeming underlying mania. Though Phoenix is the centre-piece, Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers an equally statuesque performance as the charismatic Master, yet perhaps more intriguing is Adams as his seemingly quiet and agreeable wife, who nevertheless proves possibly a more potent and unshakable voice of confidence than even Lancaster himself. It is difficult to imagine that all three performances won’t be major awards players in the coming months.
Paul Thomas Anderson has assembled a ravishing, beautifully-lensed film, bolstered by another belting, dissonant score from Jonny Greenwood. It’s topped by three chameleonic performances, though will prove a hard sell outside of the art-house precisely because it denies the very notions that most cinema-goers hold dear. This is one film that doesn’t have all or seemingly many of the answers, nor does it pretend to; Anderson’s work is a snapshot of a time, one that develops in the viewer’s mind long after a sitting.
The Master is released in London’s Odeon West End in 70mm on November 2nd, before being released nation-wide on November 16th.
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