The Master

The Master ★★★★

Post-war America was a time of renewed personal discovery for not just the nation, but primarily the servicemen who fought for their country & at its heart, The Master is very much about the corruption of that return to the world, indeed equally about the dangers of false prophets who promise understanding & enlightenment in a world often without rational meaning. Paul Thomas Anderson was always going to find following up There Will Be Blood a difficult task, and inevitably The Master lacks the cinematic power or indeed the suspected long-lasting iconic reach of that film, but it certainly deserves to sit among the pantheon of Anderson's other works. In many senses it feels like a companion piece, not that they're narratively or even thematically connected, but they share a period focus, the deconstruction of deeply flawed men craving power, and a concentration of the relationship between masters/servants, fathers & sons. The Master only can't call itself one of Anderson's best because it's often deeply impenetrable & unknowing, which perhaps makes sense given the angle of what it's trying to communicate.

Much has been said about how Anderson's original screenplay is an allegory for Scientology and there's a very apparent truth in that statement, with Anderson clearly no fan of 'The Cause', the quasi-belief system espoused by Philip Seymour Hoffman's self help guru Lancaster Dodd, which draws on mystical concepts in order to justify drawing people in--often at financial cost--to help them become at one with their own self. It's not overt, but the parallels exist between The Cause and other feted modern 'religions' that promise much in the way of answers, but deliver little, with Anderson deeply concerned at the danger of people such as Dodd. Hoffman--in one of his last primary roles, though he's not quite the lead here--plays Dodd in his justifiably Academy Award nominated turn, as a man apparently in complete control & driven by the sense of his convictions, yet he's as false as what he espouses; at one point his son Jesse Plemons (who makes for a striking younger double of Hoffman at times) comments that Dodd is 'making it all up as he goes along', while Dodd can often be found propelled on himself by Amy Adams' wife Peggy, truly the one driven with devout zeal, further suggesting the maxim that 'great men are helped by greater women behind them' but Dodd isn't great, and that's the fallacy. They may call him the 'Master', but he has no greater truth than anyone else, and that's another reason Anderson chooses an early 50's setting for his story.

People came out of the darkness of WW2 looking for answers, looking for direction, a fresh beginning, and at the very beginning as we meet Joaquin Phoenix's lead Freddie Quell, he's part of a de-mobbed tour fresh off the boat being told now they can go & do anything. Yet Freddie has, like the rest of them, been marked by his experiences & simply cannot readjust to a 'normal' all-American life, it's not that simple, and Anderson brings out that complexity in some vivid moments and, primarily, though a brilliant performance by Phoenix; his also Academy Award nominated turn is among a career best, Freddie a limping, snivelling, childish mess of psychological issues, crippled by an awkward facial grimace & a haggard frame. It's a transformation. And he's perfect fodder for corruption by a man like Dodd, who sees in Freddie a corruptible naïveté that he exploits. Freddie wants what all men do - to be loved, and love another - yet he also needs what Dodd can offer, that surety, that guidance; in a standout moment, Dodd hits Freddie with a barrage of questions & Phoenix/Hoffman are electrifying as Freddie is worn down to the bone. Anderson peppers his script with moments that often deconstruct both men, along with what they end up standing for, and ultimately builds to a somewhat melancholy touch. His direction is certainly quieter here, lacking the melodramatic bombast of his previous film, but Anderson has always been about performance first & he coaxes several great ones here - even from Adams, who admitted she often didn't always know when he was shooting her during takes, when she was required on set in character.

The Master isn't quite masterful, but that's not to underestimate it's contained power. Paul Thomas Anderson, as ever, has much to say that might exist in a hopeful microcosm of the mid 20th century but also resonates in a world today where many turn to the quasi-spiritual for answers life can't provide, and if anything The Master serves as a cautionary tale - yet it's not weighty, or preachy, infact it's often edging toward a surreal unease Anderson's previous film encapsulated, an explosion less of violence but of pressure-cooker fury at how these characters ended up *needing* what 'The Cause' here provides. For a film about a hollow pursuit, it's ironically full of substance and riven with some magnetic performances, shored up by careful, unshowy direction that encapsulates the era perfectly, looking gorgeous on 70MM, and remains always engaging. This may also be the last great Philip Seymour Hoffman performance & for that alone, The Master will always deserve remembering.

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