Paul Thomas Anderson has a lot to live up to. By the time he was thirty years old he had Boogie Nights and Magnolia under his belt establishing him as the most talked about new American filmmaker of the 1990’s next to Quentin Tarantino. Five years ago his magnificent fifth picture, There Will Be Blood, was heralded by many critics as one of the finest, if not the finest film of the new decade. He has found himself being compared to the likes of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and even Stanley Kubrick as a new titan of American cinema. In cinefile circuits his new release The Master has been awaited with the sort of fan fever saved for comic book blockbuster adaptations. Interest has been particularly stoked since rumours circulated that the film would focus on the early years of the controversial religious sect Scientology and its mysterious founder L. Ron Hubbard. But nothing is ever as it seems. Anderson has sidestepped the obvious headline grabbing to deliver a film that is everything we expect from him; virtuoso, frightening, mysterious and with its heart on its sleeve.
It’s the end of World War Two and things are not right for Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). An alcoholic Navy Veteran, who has been left psychologically scarred by his experience in conflict and with an unhealthy lust for women, is sent into the civilian population and told that he and his like are now America’s future. Yet Freddie’s bad habits soon find him drifting from drink to drink, woman to woman and utter desolation. One night he drunkenly stumbles across the path of Lancaster Dodd (Philipp Seymour Hoffman), the self appointed leader of ‘The Cause’, a philosophical movement that claims to be able to cure ailments and trauma by recalling the past lives of individuals by billions of years. Dodd is fascinated by Freddie (and his homemade liquor) and invites him along with ‘The Cause’ entourage to spread the word across post war America. Though Freddie finds initial solace in Dodd’s teachings it isn’t long before doubts and scepticism rear their heads and a psychological tug of war begins between the two men.
From its fractured opening it’s clear that Anderson is playing to his own rules. Much talk has been made of the fact that the film has been shot in 65mm film stock and blown up into 70mm as opposed to the industry standard of digital filming and projection. I was lucky enough to see the film in its original stock format and found it well worth the effort. The texture and colours practically radiate off the screen whilst Anderson’s measured direction (in contrast to the frenetic nature of his early work) allows us to soak in the atmosphere in every long, meticulous take. This is once again accompanied by a stunningly unconventional score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood that constantly wrong foots expectation yet completely puts you in the characters’ mindset. When it comes to the particulars of the narrative, Anderson is not one to speak down to an audience. There Will Be Blood was discussed as an examination of the birth of capitalism and commentary on America’s dependence on oil yet he never forces those ideas down your throat and he certainly doesn’t do it here. All the build up has focused round the Scientology issue but at its heart The Master is far more about the uncertainty of post-war America, a clash of class ethics (Dodd is the entrepreneur, Freddie the blue collar everyman), the horrors of post traumatic stress disorder and perhaps even a doomed platonic love between two outsiders attempting to find their way in a new world. Anderson has once again used an epic canvas to create a searing intimate portrait.
It is in the clash between Freddie and Dodd that the crux of the drama takes place. In terms of narrative it is the least constricted of Anderson’s work and so much responsibility lies upon Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances and it’s a responsibility they rise to tremendously. Opinion remains divided on Phoenix’s bizarre faux sidestep into being a rap artist but it’s great to have him back channelling the raw, dangerous and oddly charming energy that made his name. He is simply stunning as a man whose sheer facial expression alone speaks volumes about his character and what he has seen. He enters the frame a figure of snarling, contorted anger barely suppressed beneath the surface slurring words out of one side of his mouth refusing to confront the issues bubbling away within him. In one frighteningly surreal sequence, Freddie is brought along to a socialite dinner and physically resembles a wild animal that has somehow been forced into human attire. Brilliant, subtle touches (reaching out to a hostess’s necklace) add layers to the complexion and bring Freddie alongside the other brilliantly damaged souls of Anderson’s filmography. However ‘big’ Phoenix’s performance is, it is matched with a mercurial subtlety from Hoffman, who works as a perfect counterbalance to Freddie’s volatile nature. He manages to make plausible the idea that people can be drawn to such bizarre notions through a stunning portrayal of charming and infectious joie de vivre that make everyone gravitate towards Dodd and his teachings. However far from just a kind father figure (a recurring theme for Anderson) Dodd is capable of showcasing a spiteful darkness when his theories are criticised. His brief outbursts at dissenters are terrifying as they are short. Watching the two actors together is genuinely like watching lightening in a bottle and several scenes between them are as exciting and emotionally draining as any major action set piece from this year’s summer blockbusters. One scene recalls De Niro’s meltdown in Raging Bull as when both men are briefly jailed, they use their separate confines as the opportunity to rail against one another. Freddie hurls accusations of lies whilst Dodd repeatedly taunts him, ‘I’m the only one who likes you!’ For all of the films fractured, episodic nature it builds up to a surprisingly moving tale of a failed relation between the men. Their final scene, which would otherwise sound bizarre on page, becomes almost unbearably tragic. Though the film is dominated by the two male leads we also have a string of effective supporting performances most notably Amy Adams as Dodd’s ever present wife Peggy. Rapidly becoming a firm fixture on annual awards nomination lists, Adams wonderfully subverts her good, All-American girl image for something far more straight faced and even chilling. Though seemingly first merely a supportive arm to support Dodd, Peggy is gradually revealed to be far more akin to a Lady Macbeth of the story driving her husband on, urging him to go on the attack and in one telling (and quite scary) scene, displaying a sexual dominance over her husband before chastising his relationship with Freddie.
Anyone looking for easy or cathartic payoffs may very well be disappointed. There’s none of the raining frogs of Magnolia or descent into homicidal madness of There Will Be Blood. Instead Anderson chooses to end on a quieter and extremely ambiguous note. Dissenters will argue that the film ask more questions than it provides answers and question where it leaves the characters at the finale. I’m personally delighted to be confounded when the questions are this deep and the execution is this flawless. It arguably represents a maturity in Anderson’s style compared to his rapid multi stranded early epics. He is refusing to repeat himself and has cemented his reputation as one of America’s finest mainstream filmmakers. This is cinema at an absolute pinnacle and I cannot recommend it enough. I’m a devotee of The Master.