Paul Thomas Anderson. The directorial heavyweight with a trained eye for the unconventional. Prosthetic penis’ in Boogie Nights. Raining frogs in Magnolia. Garnering a solid performance from the comedic marmite that is Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love. With his exemplary directorial prowess, trademark dissections of leftfield subject matters and delicate interchanging between father/son, boss/protege relationships, Anderson has been propelled into the top bracket of great Hollywood ‘artistes’. Now after a prolonged five year hiatus, he’s back with his most enigmatic and ambiguous effort to date.. ’The Master’. The film has already sparked outrage in it’s build up as cynics imply Anderson’s latest is a vicious attack towards Scientology. However, scratch the glossy surface and you soon appreciate the director’s agenda is more extensive in length and detail.
Set against the backdrop of post World War II America, we are introduced to the unpredictable force of nature that is Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix). A naval veteran/victim of such punishing national duty, it’s unfortunate to find Quill has returned home metaphorically speaking ’lost at sea’. ‘Surviving’ on a day to day basis through his indulgence of alcoholic beverages and far from subtle when attracting the opposite sex, Quill’s temprament continuously proves his downfall.
Quill eventually seeks comfort on another water based vessel, where he encounters the larger than life Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Aided by his loyal wife Mary (Amy Adams) and his enthusiastic collective of ‘believers’, Dodd is a sophisticated figure overflowing with philosophical jargon and charisma. A spearhead for a ‘religious’ movement entitled ‘The Cause’, Dodd willingly takes Quill on as his latest ‘experiment’ in an attempt to repair his mental state and banish the anger that has consumed him. With Dodd attempting to unleash his teachings on a nationwide scale, can he triumph in such a power struggle against the naysayers whilst maintaining his own sense of duty to Quill? Or is there an element of truth to the claims his therapeutic brand has an underlying sinister motive?
‘The Master’ is not a slice of cinema confined to a rigid narrative sctructure, with Anderson opting for a more abstract and scattershot approach more fitting of a Terence Malick film with the themes ‘explored’ open to interpretation. Eluded to in its minimalist trailer, Dodd’s leading of ‘The Cause’ indeed fits the criteria of cult.
But instead of playing the traditional religious card in Dodd being a modern day Jesus with his trustee ‘disciples’ hanging on and spreading his every word, Anderson shows restraint and instead provides parallels with modern day America. Perhaps it’s social commentary on the director’s part to question first and foremost the notion of dictatorship and such a person’s delusions of grandeur in spoonfeeding and ultimately seducing the masses with ideas devoid of coherence. Freddie’s ‘arc’ proves relevant in this sense also. Cutting a disillusioned figure, is Anderson aiming for a sly political statement by implying that the country is unable to facilitate and offer suitable help to war veterans of the present day (Iraq) pulling out?
It’s most vague aspect is arguably it’s most audacious, planted by a key line of dialogue early on ‘People on the outside will not understand the condition you men have.’ and an unsettling photograph session involving Freddie and a customer. The suggestion of emasculation and the repression of male homosexuality. The Quill/Dodd dynamic alone is borderline bromance and their verbal exchanges bristle with intensity, culminating in a very peculiar and understated ‘singalong’. But Dodd’s barrage of quickfire trial and error ‘sessions’ for Freddie’s ‘benefit’, for example staring at another guy for a minute without speaking, bring out uncontrollable and animalistic urges associated more with the male form. Is Dodd’s real motive actually to provide a warped ‘cure’ for a ‘condition’ in the 1950′s deemed sinful and immoral?
Shifting into more conventional analytical territory, the performances are a collective tour-de-force. Phoenix is an astonishing continuation of Anderson’s infatuation with tortured lead protagonists. With his ever increasing erratic persona and skewered figure movements, his portrayal of Freddie Quill is a simmering powderkeg always daring to ‘explode’. The ever reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd is a classic case of being precise and gung-ho in public, uncertain and defensive when away from the frenzy surrounding his ‘work’. Plus is it a mere coincidence considering the 1950′s setting that such a commanding figure is blonde with blue eyes? Amy Adams’ portrayal of Peggy is another welcome layer of intrigue, with the film only sporadically implying she has more of a hand in ‘The Cause’ than Dodd.
Anderson’s direction as ever is immaculate and saturated in beauty. The luminous blue seas, the sun glistening mid-shots of Phoenix on the run or Hoffman roaring along on a motorcycle, the overall composition of sequences intertwined with the inspired synchronised use of it’s musical score gives the film a near ‘poetry in motion’ feel. Where in ‘There Will Be Blood’ had a delightful knack for the theatrical, The Master signifies the director at his most composed.
Make no mistake, this is a surreal and challenging beast with it’s emphasis on character instead of genuine story likely to infuriate a select few. But The Master is an outstanding and unforgettable thought provoker that will marinate in your mind for days.