Film Review | The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s powerful, enigmatic post-war drama about a cult leader and a disturbed soldier is back at St James Cavalier over the next couple days. Don’t miss it.

WWII veteran Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix – left) falls under the spell of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest psychological epic.
WWII veteran Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix – left) falls under the spell of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest psychological epic.

The films that secured Oscars this year all had one thing in common: they left virtually no room to the imagination.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln depicted the titular president's drive to abolish slavery in all its bureaucratic detail - telling the audience just how important the unfolding events are, as opposed to showing them.

On very much the opposite side of that same coin, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was a more entertaining take on similar themes, but once again its aggressive revenge-epic structure allowed for no ambiguity.

And Zero Dark Thirty certainly left us with plenty of unanswered questions, and an unhealthy dollop of moral unease - but Kathryn Bigelow shoots the pursuit and eventual dispatch of Osama Bin Laden in a baffling 'reality TV' style, so that a film that's supposed to be all about context ends up with none.

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master didn't score any Oscar accolades - in fact, contrary to expectation it neither managed to net all that many nominations, securing just a trio of nods for its key actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams).

This, despite the fact that Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) is considered to be one of the luminaries of contemporary American cinema.

Perhaps it's because this story about a shell-shocked World War II naval officer Freddie Quell (Phoenix) returning home to find himself seduced by the ideas of cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) offers no clear-cut explanations for the uneasy relationship that develops between the two men.

It certainly isn't a film about the founding days of Scientology, as most suspected prior to its release. If Anderson takes a cue from the infamous pseudo-religion's founding father (the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard), it's only to go off on his own tangent and explore a more universal story about man's ongoing battle between carnal instinct and the rational psyche.

This is an impeccably acted and photographed piece of cinema. The soundtrack is great too - Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who had collaborated with Anderson on There Will Be Blood, weaves in a similarly sparse and equally creepy undertone to the proceedings.

Reflecting Freddie's unhinged psychological state, and the enigmatic source - and ultimate purpose - of Lancaster's quackery, the soundtrack is arguably the key to Anderson's slow but rewarding film.

But if you find yourself completely adrift, it may be worth to keep Anderson's previous output at the back of your mind while this lovely-but-lurching film unspools over your eyeballs.

Sure, Anderson's films tend to be characterised by passionately fleshed out characters and psychologically explosive, sometimes deliberately sensational plots: think of the blackly comic journey into the 1970s pornographic underworld that was Boogie Nights, or the gothic stylings of There Will Be Blood.

Rhythmically, these films seem miles away from the quiet (not to be mistaken for 'serene') tone of The Master.

But as he did in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson's view of the naïve - and tragically misguided - outsider is always compassionate, almost tender.

Just as in Boogie Nights the veteran porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) sets out on an impossible quest to make an erotic feature that also stands up as a bona fide film in his own right, so Lancaster Dodd purports to gain access to his patients' 'historical' forbears (a kind of reverse-reincarnation, if you will) for the purposes of healing and enlightenment.

It would have been too easy to just present Dodd as an exploitative crank, but Anderson knows that true pathos is a richer vein to mine.

Though we aren't privy to all the details of 'The Cause' - like members of any cult, I suppose, we're fed information only on a need-to-know basis - what we're shown is a man who appears to wholeheartedly believe his own bullshit, and who's acutely aware of the fact that it won't stand up to scrutiny in the 'real world'.

So he surrounds himself with a broad family of followers - militantly captained by his own wife Peggy (Amy Adams) - and sets off at sea, away from the prying eyes of the 'unenlightened' masses.

Enter Freddie.

Hoffman is reliably good - he's an Anderson veteran, and an adept hand at playing conflicted types - but Phoenix is here to steal the show.

With a Quasimodo-like war-worn face (prosthetics have given him a wrung-towel mug) and pregnant with a psychosis generously laced with sexual frustration, he exists to implode.

But he also has an all-American talent: he can make a potent alcoholic brew with anything ready to hand - be it bread or paint thinner.

He's also the only man Lancaster can't seem to pin down, cleanse, and elevate from his 'beastly' condition.

And so we're invited to watch this heady dance. It's something of a slow dance with plenty of pauses, but it's quietly dazzling all the same.

The overall effect of this strange battle-cum-romance of wills isn't alien to Anderson's repertoire.

For just as There Will Be Blood's brutal oil-digging saga showed a worm's eye view into the first stirrings of capitalism, courtesy of the Lancaster and Freddie two-hander, Anderson ventures to imagine the roots of the 'self-help' craze that would go on to become so endemic to the American psyche.

There's something exhilarating about witnessing such a cataclysmic cultural shift. More so when it's wrenched out of the hearts and minds of two distinct, and distinctly polarised, individuals.

The Master will be shown at St James Cavalier Cinema, Valletta tomorrow and March 28 at 20:45.

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