Paul Thomas Anderson can never be accused of thinking small. In his latest work, The Master, the writer/director battles with nostalgia, the occult and post-war America, capturing its fixation on the charismatic and the quasi-religious as much as There Will Be Blood pinpointed American capitalism. The Master follows Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbling path towards Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the hold of ‘The Cause’, in a flawed but dizzying spell of arresting photography and blinding performances.
Both alien and dysfunctional, Anderson has imagined a parallel world that looks like 1950’s America, yet it is a world of weird moments and dark secrets: masturbation on the beach, brawls in vast department stores and desperate flees across dusty fields. The first thirty minutes are completely mesmerising; the rich cinematography (filmed in 65mm) gleaming with vibrancy, from the bright blues of the sea to the dusky lighting shading Phoenix’s face as he hunches over his homemade moonshine. As we drift with Freddie through various failed relationships and employments, his rootlessness is fully realised as we see him, either by fate or some other zen-like twist, scramble across the twinkly fairytale yacht housing the Master himself, and the potential key to his redemption.
The central performances are easily The Master‘s absolute stand-out feature, elevating it from a mere visual, technical and thematic spectacle. Phoenix gives the most fascinating of his career yet, giving Freddie a twisted, simian-like gait, a gnarled expression and eyes drowned in misery and alcohol. There’s never a scene where we disbelieve him, moving from quiet sexual frustration to hooch-induced rage. Hoffman is just as unsettling portraying the cult leader, a self-proclaimed and lauded intellectual and “master”; a man claiming to have all the answers. The links to Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard are ever present, and one line where Dodd’s son claims “he’s making it up as he goes along” apparently even ruffled Tom Cruise’s feathers at a screening.
A scene between Freddie and Dodd involving an informal “processing” is unflinchingly crafted and performed, and Hoffman’s strange, controlled calmness throughout only makes his later, more animalistic turns all the more frightening. It’s made even more bizarre by Freddie’s aggressive but infantile spells; throwing fruit at challengers and making fart jokes like Dodd’s poorly trained circus animal. One of the other constant threads, and a highlight, is Jonny Greenwood’s disjointed score – a crazed concoction of sinister strings and maddening typewriter-esque clicks, which only add to the feeling of Dodd’s self-possessed psychology.
The fundamental flaw of The Master lies in its overly ambiguous third act, where all this encompassing ground work is never fully realised and the compelling, co-dependent tie the two male leads share turns out to be negligible. Perhaps this is the void of snake-oil salesmanship Anderson was trying to display? Or perhaps we were supposed to realise these characters were never going to change? It’s too unclear to tell, with the fall coming far too quickly after the languorous, dream-like pace of the first two hours. It is the acting that transforms The Master from an unexceptional story to, in part, a compelling character study, making it more than just a blend of colour and camera.
Another piece of the puzzle not fully explored was Peggy Dodd, wife of the Master and superbly performed by Amy Adams. She is a truly Machiavellian character; a sweetly ubiquitous force that showcases Adams’ girl-next-door charms with subversive effect. Adams has stated in interviews that Anderson made her sit in scenes she was not scheduled to appear in, just to make her presence felt, often not knowing whether the camera would even be on her. By the end of the film, you find yourself wishing you’d seen a lot more of her.
The Master is a work so frustratingly opaque that it’s easy to admire but difficult to fall in love with; an art form with a heart of darkness.