Released in cinemas 16th November 2012.
Following his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with a hugely ambitious project even more oblique. A gloriously-shot period piece, it follows self-destructive, alcoholic US Navy vet Freddie Quell (a physically ravaged Joaquin Phoenix in a most welcome comeback) in limbo at the end of WWII. Sex-obsessed and drinking self-made concoctions Withnail would balk at, the department store photographer gatecrashes the yacht party of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a mesmerising yet subtle study of manipulation and power begins.
Clearly based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd describes himself as ‘a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,’ enthralling the wealthy with his burgeoning cult, which utilises past-life regression. Dodd trials methods of ‘processing’ on Freddie, stripping him to down his basest elements. These early scenes are electrifying, with two powerhouse actors at loggerheads; one squirming, grasping and exposed, the other revelling in control. Dodd finds Freddie and his ungainly, brutish unpredictability fascinating, and takes him into the home he shares with sharp, perceptive and permanently pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams, excellent but underused), as his ‘Cause’ finds traction.
As exquisitely realised on 65mm film The Master is, the simmering tension can’t mask how impenetrable and lacking the slow-burning story is. It can be remembered as a number of beautifully-played scenes, but none bear any dramatic weight or consequence. Dodd’s Cause is background material - there’s little sense of time and place or the scale of his effect, and Laura Dern is wasted as a powerful disciple who dares to question Dodd’s plan. It’s Freddie’s ‘story’ - does this wreck of a man submit to his master’s teachings? Why is he lost? Why does he drink himself into oblivion, and what will soothe his anger? (An indicative surname choice by Anderson.)
There’s so much to admire in The Master, but it’s a frustrating watch. It’s a work by a man who loves cinema as an art form, but - for once - doesn’t actually want to entertain. It’s fair to say - without a trace of snobbery - this is the best example of a film to be enjoyed by critics and cineastes, not mass audiences, being heavily reliant on themes and allegory, not narrative. Anderson is justifiably touted as one of the greatest living American directors; a singular, uncompromising voice. That he got to make The Master at all should be celebrated (Megan Ellison and Annapurna Pictures came to the rescue). When stories circulated that the Oscar-nominated director was unable to secure funding for this project it was assumed the Scientology angle put the willies up investors, but presented with the final product, it’s indeed possible that the vague script itself was off-putting: there isn’t a truly memorable or awe-inspiring piece of dialogue to be found in The Master, which is disconcerting when one of the lead characters is supposed to be a charismatic, influential leader.
Where The Master succeeds is in the cinematography, production design and performances, all of which shine brighter in the first half of the film. Freddie’s alarmingly antisocial behaviour on the beaches of Guam makes even his fellow sailors blush. The bird’s eye view of drunken slumbering on the decks is wondrous, and Anderson’s divine framing of the American Family of the Fifties is like nothing you’ve seen in recent times - the extras casting, costume design and make-up is masterful. An evocative long take of a model salesgirl doing the rounds of a department store as Freddie loses his patience as a photographer is the finest moment in the film. However, Anderson loses to self-indulgence - a scene later involving two lengthy motorcycle rides hammer home how infuriating his methods are.
The acting is faultless. Hoffman is wisely restrained as the flushed egomaniac Dodd, and Adams is deceptively tough and brittle. This is Phoenix’s show, however. The riveting actor had a superb career behind him before dropping off the grid for Casey Affleck’s amazing art project I’m Still Here, subjecting himself to very public ridicule as an actor-turned-rapper losing the plot. This is his first film since those two years were revealed as one big hoax, and what a return; a volatile, snarling hunchback who stares at the ground when he’s not wrestling with his libido, confused, angry and childlike. There isn’t much in the way of character development, but acceptance is telling.
With the addition of Jonny Greenwood’s sparse, jarring and unsettling woodwind score - the polar opposite of his confident, majestic work on There Will Be Blood, where the music was a character all by itself - The Master is the very definition of challenging cinema.