THE PRESS MADE MUCH of the supposed subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. According to reports, Hollywood Scientologists even tried to prevent the film ever from being made. But though the film’s mysterious, cultish group is Scientology in all but its name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a slow meditation on faith and meaning in post-war America rather than a hit-piece, and loses nothing either by failing to call a spade a spade or in its offering more questions than answers.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an awkward and volatile Navy veteran with sex on his mind and a taste for strong drink, accidentally finds himself at sea with the members of a cult named The Cause after he boards a ship leaving port. There, he meets the enigmatic, charismatic “Master” of the film’s title, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with whom he forms an instant bond.
The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified.
It is a simple enough plot, but The Master is not so much a story as a character study with a level of depth rarely seen outside of the world of literature. Anderson divides his film into three acts, each of them beginning with an extended shot of the wake of a ship, the water alternately appearing calm and violent, and it’s an image which corresponds to the outer lives of the two central characters.
The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified. Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as the rake-thin Freddie Quell, who swings wildly between awkward odd-one-out and something approaching violent man-child, particularly after a drink of his famous paint-thinner cocktail. The outstanding success of the film is the depiction of Quell’s relationship with Dodd: in the most memorable scene of the film, the pair go to a party where Quell stands around awkwardly, with both hands placed on his lower back––an unusual, strange pose––while the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman charms the hostess and the other guests before giving an impromptu “processing” psychotherapy session, reminding us at every step what an absolutely crushing loss to cinema his early death represents. The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema: Quell finds in Dodd a father figure, sympathy, and meaning bordering on the spiritual; Dodd, in turn, finds his muse in his “brave boy” Freddie, who serves too as a form of narcissistic supply for Dodd that is addictive and incomparable, even among the doting members of his family and his followers.
The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema
The brilliance of the central pair is only made better by the supporting performances of Amy Adams, as Dodd’s quietly zealous, fearsome wife, Jesse Plemons, who play’s Dodd’s son, Val, and Rami Malek––now a household name thanks to Mr. Robot––who plays Dodd’s son-in-law, Clark. The film is also notable for its presentation in 70mm (that dog-whistle for film aficionados), which means, to cut through the whole technical explanation of the thing, that the cinema audience sees more colour and more detail, and––most importantly, perhaps, given the subject matter of The Master––sharper contrast. The events of the film largely take place indoors, but the high-resolution which comes through the use of 70mm film is nevertheless clear to see throughout, particularly during the recurring shots of the ship’s wake.
The Master is not about a cult, Anderson has said (repeatedly)––and he is, of course, correct. Rather, The Master is a study of Freddie Quell, a man physically able but purposeless, horny, drunk on homemade booze, haunted by the past; his woes are a metaphor for the strange grimness that pervaded post-World War II America. Freddie is a traumatised overgrown child whose sense of place has been worn down to dust, and into this vacuum steps Dodd, also a fugitive (albeit in a different way). The film’s success, then, rests nearly exclusively on the narrow shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix and the supporting hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they do not––do they ever?––disappoint.