After the resounding success of There Will Be Blood, The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson was rightly heralded as a visionary.
After the resounding success of There Will Be Blood,
The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson was rightly heralded as a visionary.
His distinct use of camera to evoke more than narrative, his ability to
conjure character through music and a style so unique some hailed him akin to Orson Welles meant that his next
project would be much anticipated.
When the announcement came that said project would be about a cult like
religion, not dissimilar to Scientology, the world waited with bated
breath. The Master is, without
doubt, another example of why Anderson is one of the finest filmmakers
currently working in the medium today but The Master does not pack the clouting
brutality of Blood’s “I drink your milkshake”.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man at a loss, a
drifter alone in the world and unable to hold down any job due to his short
temper and drinking problem. But
when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip
Seymour Hoffman), the head of an organisation called The Cause, Freddie’s
life could be about to change.
Lancaster believes he can tame Freddie, bringing him into his inner most
circle as he writes and prepares to publish his second great book pertaining to
the belief system. Supported by
his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) Lancaster
suspects he and Freddie were friends in a former life. But as the pressures of leading a
revolution begin to show on Lancaster, so Freddie becomes a burden, his violent
outbursts and resistance to Lancaster’s ‘processing’ hindering rather than
helping The Cause.
The moment The
Master starts it has Anderson’s stamp all over it. A visual flourish accompanied by a chaotic string being
repeatedly plucked, we’re introduced to Freddie on a churning ocean. Here is a man who, not unlike Anderson
the director, sticks his middle finger up to the conventional. Freddie is isolated by his own self-destructive
nature. So desperate for hooch
he’ll siphon off torpedo fuel to make moonshine. To Freddie the world is incidental, he may occupy it but he
has no use for it other than his own self-gratification.
Freddie is a
stray dog who is in desperate need of discipline, a master to make him sit,
role over and play dead. Lancaster
sees something in Freddie; a project for a learned man to undertake, a dragon
for him to tame and control. In
many ways Lancaster sees Freddie as his polar opposite but Anderson draws
parallels between the two that often paints them in the same light. The key difference between them is
Peggy, while Lancaster does not realise it, she has tamed Lancaster, controlled
him and manipulated him to her own desire.
As with There
Will Be Blood, Anderson brings a sense of evil temptation to The Master. It is a seductive affair; an often
bombarding experience of the subconscious while the mind is preoccupied by the
stunning visuals. Anderson’s
camera taking in breathtaking vistas of oceans, beaches and deserts before
locking us away in confined ships, houses and prison cells. You are never allowed to settle,
instead The Master forces you into a state of unease with its unnerving score
and tone that infects you to the point where you wonder if Freddie’s anger at
the world might be contagious.
Before the film’s
release much of the talk was about Anderson’s implication that Lancaster Dodd
was based on Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. While there are obvious notions of Hubbard in Dodd’s The
Cause, the hype, if anything, is a distraction and one that is ultimately one
of The Master’s only flaws. For
while Anderson seems more interested in focusing on the relationship between
Freddie and Lancaster we are left with the idea that something has gone
missing. We never get to the heart
of what The Cause is; there are ideas of souls traveling through time from one
life to another but nothing concrete.
It leaves you wanting more from Anderson, that at some point in the
writing process you suspect he had reams of scathing ideas about the basis of
cult that have gone missing either through a level of indulgence towards his
characters or perhaps through fear of upsetting the followers of such
religions. The only meaty moment
of doubting The Cause comes when Laura
Dern, who has been one of Lancaster’s most ardent followers, questions a
phrase in Book Two of The Cause.
Unable to clarify the change in terminology he has adopted, Lancaster
loses his patience. It is a
fleeting moment but in it you suspect is the concept of a film that Anderson
wanted to make, a film about a man coming under increasing pressure to prove
his belief system and repeatedly coming up short.
The three central
performances, all of which were Oscar nominated, are breathtaking. Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd is a wonderfully
puffed-up, pompous man. A man so
arrogant in his beliefs that when threatened becomes a ball of anger, his face
filling in colour and rage. Amy
Adams meanwhile brings a dry, calculating, almost Lady Macbeth persona to
Pegg. Through her desperation to
see Lancaster succeed she quietly pulls the strings in the background, a
foreboding vindictive quality that is seductive to her husband. But it is Joaquin Phoenix who leads the
way. His Freddie a hunched over,
twitchy man, all scowls and smacking of the lips he is so broken you suspect he
is capable of almost anything.
Like its two
protagonists, The Master is often a contradiction. Bursting with fascinating characters the bigger ideas are
swept under the carpet. At times
untamed at others pompous and proud, The Master is never anything less than