Published On: Mon, Feb 4th, 2013

The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

The only predicable thing about Paul Thomas Anderson films is that they are guaranteed to polarise opinion. Like any rational debate on a divisive subject, there are two decent arguments here. 1) It is cinematic brilliance or 2) It is indulgent pish.

Much like PTA’s previous efforts, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and my personal favourite There Will Be Blood, The Master is positively charged with character texture and depth, but a tad sparse on plot. With an immensely strong cast including Phillip ‘Capote’ Seymour Hoffman, and Joaquin ‘I’m Still Here (…and I’m a mentalist wannabe rapper)’ Phoenix, The Master is a beautifully shot and stimulating, if not entirely coherent, cocktail of pain, love, friendship and cultism.

Set in the immediate years following WWII, Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a recently returned veteran painfully blighted by alcoholism, physiological issues and an inability to settle on a direction in life. In a gripping opening half hour we follow his struggled attempts at normality, until he drunkenly stumbles across Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. The Master.

Dodd’s magnetic charisma draws in the rudderless Quell, who for once in his life appears to have been accepted by someone who truly understands. Together their relationship grows, as Dodd, with the help of his shadowy puppet master wife played by the fantastic Amy Adams, take ascending strides to solidify their following and attain scholarly success.

There is far more than a wink and nudge towards L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, but at no point does this theme saturate the film. Instead, an uneasy sense of the cult’s all-encompassing pull of the vulnerable hums along consistently in background, only to occasionally roar into a scene.

Quell is as unpredictable as a coked up mongoose with a fist full of sparklers stuffed up its arse. Whatever you think of Joaquin Phoenix, he most certainly a mercurial talent with a bottomless ability to shock. How any levelheaded person can realistically act to this level of psychotic is just unreal. PTA said himself that he could no longer remember the character he wrote for the part of Quell, as Phoenix made the role his own from them moment he arrived on set. A tit short of an udder, he must surely be.

Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood returns to orchestrate his now signature shifty, paranoia-inducing style score. After being so cruelly denied the Oscar for There Will Be Blood, it’s a roral outrage that this effort has not added to the 3 Oscar nominations for The Master.

What is it all about? It’s hard to say really. A bit of Scientology perhaps. Possibly the difficulties of coping with and understanding Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Or maybe even just a bit of old fashioned “bromance”. One thing for sure is that it is an archetype character study, and in the days following the film I was left with a sense of intrigue and wonder, the likes of which few films nowadays can replicate.


Craig Munro