Paul Thomas Anderson has only done a handful of films since his 1997 directorial debut Hard Eight but has he really got anything more to prove after such strong and consistent deliveries? Maybe only one thing… that he can keep up the very high standard he has set himself. If The Master is anything to go by, then it looks like his reputation is more than secure.
World War II has now ended and the troops are sent back home to adjust to civilised society. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of these men. He’s also one that finds it hard to readjust and relies heavily on alcohol, eventually drifting from place to place and unable to hold down gainful employment. He is given another chance at life, though, when he happens to stumble upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the charismatic leader of a cult.
Anderson’s film’s certainly seem to have matured over the years. To go from his colourful and riotously entertaining second film Boogie Nights to the epic and Oscar winning There Will Be Blood is quite a leap in style and substance. His films always seem to have the recurring theme of a tortured protagonist and this is no different. It shares more in common with the aforementioned latter film, though, in terms of it’s depth and cerebral approach and it’s depiction of a struggling, disreputable man, challenging the religious beliefs of another. What else this has in common is Anderson’s ability to bring out the best in his actors.
There are three searing, Oscar nominated, central performances from Hoffman as the confident and charismatic Lancaster Dodd and an emaciated, animal-like, Phoenix who looks unbearably uncomfortable as his frustrated protégé Freddie Quell. Phoenix undergoes a complete transformation here and his performance is nothing short of miraculous – if he wasn’t up against Daniel Day-Lewis for the Oscar, he might just have snapped one up for this. On the side lines and lurking in the background, we also have Amy Adams who gives a muted but very powerful performance as Dodd’s committed, Machiavellian, wife Peggy. In many ways, she is the driving force behind her husband and far more influential and conniving than is recognised. It’s not just the actors that grab your attention, though, I found every single scene of this film a work of art. The production design is flawless and the recreation of 1950’s america is captured in it’s entirety. Shot in 65mm by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, this film captures the minutest details of the time. Anderson is also in no rush, emulating masterful directors before him like Scorsese, Kubrick and David Lean. The patience and respect he shows his actors and the confidence he has in his scenes to work themselves out is a skill beyond his relatively young years. Like the domineering character Lancaster Dodd himself, Anderson also has you completely within his grasp. The film is as hypnotic and confident as it is domineering, never giving you a moment to relax and instilling a genuine feeling of unease throughout. There’s a raw, realistic, fly-on-the-wall vibe that permeates every second. It felt like I was involved in every scene and that’s, simply, down to the flawless direction and performances. They are stuff that movie gold is made from.
In terms of the story; obvious comparisons with the belief in Scientology will be made. However, it’s never called by name, referred only as “The Cause” but there’s no doubt that this is the very sect or cultish behaviour that Anderson is driving at and Lancaster Dodd is certainly an embodiment of it’s founder L. Ron Hubbard.
This understanding of such a confidence-trickster persona was witnessed before in Anderson’s Magnolia where Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey is a misogynist, egotistical, self-help guru who does seminars and talks on how men can ‘tame’ women and turn them into their ‘sperm receptacle’. He’s a detestable person that operates on the weaknesses of others. Ironically, Cruise is a well known believer in Scientology, in his personal life, and the mirroring of that character and his domineering behaviour is reflected in both the main characters from this film: Dodd has the ability to convince and Quell has a deviant sexual side. This would be a debate for another time but I couldn’t help but notice and wonder about it’s significance.
Despite the abundance of quality throughout, though, the film does have it’s faults; as it progresses it’s ambiguity increases and it never answers the overriding question as to why Dodd is so fascinated in Quell. It leaves us only with the suspicion that they are very similar people in search of something in their lives and it would seem that this should suffice. As a result, when The Master should really be ending with aplomb, it stumbles in it’s climax and also delivers a bizarre and obscure musical passage of “A Slow Boat to China”. Let’s just say that I think that Anderson was going for another grandstanding, memorable ending like the ‘revelation’ of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; the raining frogs from Magnolia or, most of all, the “I drink your milkshake” ferocity of There Will Be Blood. Simply, it doesn’t quite match those but it doesn’t matter as it recovers from this particular mishap. Then it dawned on me just how effective this was; it stuck in my mind enough for my concentration to be broken. It was the first time it had been throughout the entire film and it was at this point that I realised that I had been completely captivated. I didn’t fully understand the character of Freddie Quell but I did understand his struggle and the sheer magnetism he was up against.
Original and unrestrained filmmaking of this sort has to be applauded. I’m absolutely astounded that this film and the director were omitted from the Academy Award nominations. Another major omission was from Anderson himself; he seems to have forgotten the continuation of his movie’s title. It should have read: The (Near) Master(piece).
Thank you very much to Mark for contributing this review – you can find the original at Mark’s blog here.