The Master ★★★★½

Paul Thomas Anderson is The Master. He is a filmmaker with grand visions, a director whose loyal followers pour over every word and dissect every scene and a writer who explores the failings and extremes of Man. Above all he is a hopelessly inquisitive man always striving forward and never burdened by contemporary fashion. And just like Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic false prophet at the centre of this film, his latest work is his most challenging, dense, contradictory and elusive to date.

Each new Anderson film is accompanied by unrealistic expectation. It would not be hyperbole to suggest he is one of the last truly great American filmmakers still at the peak of their creative powers. Yet with such a reputation comes the demands for greatness each and every time which is perhaps why The Master has received such a divided reaction. It’s certainly easy to see why its detractors would have such troubles with it given its rambling and elliptical nature. Yet it has been embraced by its acolytes for many of the same reasons - it is ambiguous, ambitious, ephemeral: a rough but beautiful multifaceted diamond.

Set in the 1950s it is a film that exists in a world of progress and boundless possibilities yet it still carries the recent scars of the past. It is a world in constant friction with the two leads representing both sides of this damaged and contradictory whole. The aptly named Freddie Quell is a man of animalistic intensity who poisons his body with his own concoctions yet desperately yearns for his soul to be cleansed. His supposed salvation comes in the form of the self-proclaimed master, Lancaster Dodd, and his brand of pseudo-faith known as The Cause. Together they get drunk and intoxicated on each others poisons as Dodd attempts to tame Quell’s destructive urges and Quell tries to learn from his master’s hollow words.

The film is like a suffocating chamber drama about two damaged men yet it exists on an epic canvas hinting at the great changes occurring in America and the nation’s conflict and attraction it has towards religion. This friction is reminiscent of Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, as is the constant push and pull of the characters as if their fates are eternally entwined (who knows, maybe they were Daniel and Eli in past lives). Yet the two films may gravitate around similar themes and seismic change in American history but they feel dramatically very different. The Master lacks the sweeping and operatic theatrics, it is quieter, more intimate and possesses a woozy and elusive atmosphere.

The major criticism of the film stems from its lack of clear drive or destination. Its elliptical structure and meandering nature seems to trouble those expecting answers or even a point to the drama. I completely understand these concerns and was rather taken aback by its unusual tone. However, it’s a ‘flaw’ that ultimately works to the film’s advantage. This is a story from Freddie’s point of view; it is rambling, volatile, occasionally incoherent and opaque because he is too. A conventional story and structure help provide meaning to a film, yet meaning and purpose are both absent from Quell’s turbulent and troubled life resulting in a film that keenly reflects the protagonists frail mental state. Whilst this explanation will no doubt be problematic for some it is a bold and brave approach that, for me, paid off handsomely.

The film’s central dynamic of master and pet, ego and id, intellect and instinct, future and past, growth and destruction, love and hate is anchored by two of the finest screen performances in recent memory. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie is a misshapen ball of unexplainable frustration. He contorts his body into violent and uncomfortable angles and strains his face as if he were to explode at any moment. It is an incredible physical performance full of rage and pain. He is a failed human being seemingly incapable of being trained yet his failings and unbridled urges make him both a fascinating and sympathetic central figure.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn is equally impressive but for very different reasons. He is flushed, charismatic and domineering but just as weak as Freddie yet must hide these urges. Where Phoenix is physically explosive Hoffman keeps everything internalised and only occasionally allows his emotions and human failings get the better of him. His character may have started out as an L. Ron Hubbard surrogate yet together, Hoffman and Anderson, have created a character that you can still feel connected to despite his empty promises and snake oil patter. Amy Adams as Dodd’s steely wife is also worthy of a mention. Although her screen time is limited her presence is keenly felt as she drives her husband forward with Machiavellian intent.

As with all of Anderson’s films The Master is a technical marvel. Shooting in 65mm the film is a visual triumph that captures the sumptuous period detail and raw emotion on the faces of its characters. The change of regular cinematographer having no adverse effect on Anderson’s exacting standards and arresting compositions. Jonny Greenwood’s score once again proves to be the perfect accompaniment to Anderson’s vision. Whilst it is less discordant and jarring than his work on There Will Be Blood it still possesses a jagged and uncomfortable rhythm that suits Freddie’s troubled psyche.

The film, like Freddie Quell, is hard to pin down and is as elusive as the salvation he seeks. Ultimately The Master is imperfect. Yet, as in Man himself, it is the imperfections that make things interesting, beautiful and memorable and it is the flaws and quirks that make this film such a beguiling and unforgettable work of art. Perfection is overrated.

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