Easily my most anticipated film of the year, The Master does not disappoint. Paul Thomas Anderson has created another masterpiece, incredibly beautiful to look at and with performances from his two leads that should be hard to beat come awards time (though the subject matter might well work against them).
Joaquin Phoenix, thankfully back from his bonkers years, is astounding here as Freddie Quell, an ex-US navy sailor damaged by war and by the hooch he brews up from paint thinner. We first meet him on a beach at the end of WWII, drunk and showing off to his fellow sailors, his scrawny frame twisted, his eyes full of loss. As we watch him curl up alone, arms around the anatomically correct sand sculpture of a woman he was dry humping for laughs a few moments ago, it’s clear there is much vulnerability underneath the bravado. He’s a little boy lost, damaged by the things he’s seen, driven over the edge by drink and a fear that he’s lost everything that meant something to him. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one of the few times you feel some sympathy for this broken, unlikable man.
Back in the US, and unable to hold down a job, Freddie takes a drunken stroll on the docks one night that leads him into the company of a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd – Philip Seymour Hoffman, as powerful and magnetic in this role as I’ve seen him for a long time. The two strike up what seems at first an unlikely friendship. Their relationship is central to the film, Dodd needs an acolyte and finds someone he can control in Quell, a man with the same craving to be needed and who is more than willing to submit to Dodd’s ‘processing’. Quell at last has the stability he needs and the father figure he’s never had. Crucially both men share a furious rage hidden not far under the surface – Phoenix gives Freddie startling physical characteristics to imply this, and the rage when it comes, is fierce and violent. Seymour Hoffman keeps Dodd’s rage hidden under a cloak of geniality – we only see the fury bubble up once or twice, but when we do it’s all the more startling. Their strange bromance is at the heart of the film, which follows Dodd’s championing of The Cause, his idealistic plan to solve all the world’s problems by regressing everyone into past lives. Yes, it does sound familiar.
You’ll need to let yourself wallow in The Master, it’s fair to say the storyline is meandering and it certainly won’t please everyone (Scientologists, for example, might not entirely take it to their hearts). It’s slow, and the ending rather oblique – there are scenes that don’t seem to add much, and the plot is almost non-existent. In other hands this wouldn’t work, but Anderson (potentially one of the greatest directors working today) creates a driving momentum between Quell and Dodd that fuels the film. Both lead performances are incredible (with another impressive turn from Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife – the real master?), and visually it’s utterly beautiful – wow, if you can see it in 70mm I would urge you to, the colours have a depth you will never get on digital film, the blue of the sea and the sparkling emerald of Phoenix’s eyes could not be more arresting. The colours, the soundtrack, the depth of emotions on display – it’s all quite hypnotic.
Anderson is one of the few directors working in mainstream Hollywood who has the balls to make the films he wants to make, and thank god he does. This is one I intend to see again – and one I think needs a second viewing to get the most out of it. Superb.