The Master

The Master ★★★

An unusual film, with its own unusual, dreamlike rhythms, and, despite its vague air and loose structure, it is another compelling character study from Paul Thomas Anderson. And, after missing it at the cinema last year, I jumped at the chance of catching a one-off showing at a local theatre (not cinema). Not the best screening in the world, as it turned out, but better than nowt.

The Master isn't the debunking of Scientology many had hoped for, in fact, much like There Will Be Blood, it's more an examination of obsession and compulsive desires.

However, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's faith cult in The Master is sketchily drawn, and his L. Ron Hubbard-like character, Lancaster Dodd, never feels magnetic or seductively powerful or canny enough to have gathered a crowd of acolytes, nor do we ever really get the the bottom of what he is about, although it is easy to see what attracts him and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) together, though: one is looking to control; the other seeking to be controlled.

Livewire and unpredictable, Freddie represents the animalistic Id; driven by a seething energy, he's libidinous, an alcoholic and prone to rages. A sailor adrift post WWII, he careens in a self-destructive haze through life, until, one night, he stows aboard Dodd's party yacht. Freddie and Dodd soon bond over Freddie's gut-rot homebrew, and the panacea of self-regulation that Dodd is peddling provides the order that's been missing from Freddie's life since leaving the navy.

Equally, Dodd instantly recognises Freddie as a prize pupil: A savage beast in need of taming - and exploiting. And he eases into the role of mentor, believing he can suppress the animalisic urges in Freddie, but it soon turns out that he can barely suppress his own. When the philosophy behind his book, The Cause, is repeatedly questioned by someone, his facade of composure shatters as he broils with rage and Tourette barks "pig fuck!" at the man.

Dodd can't be 'The Master' of his own feelings, never mind anything else. His wife, however...
Amy Adams is a smart bit of against type casting, with PTA correctly recognising the actress' steeliness (as would have been clear to anyone who watched her in that recent Hollywood Insider roundtable). Adams is Mrs Dodd, who publicly appears the supportive and dutiful wife, but is quickly revealed to be the power behind the throne. Every scene she's in Adams radiates with an intensity and a force of will that Hoffman doesn't have. The amazing scene in the bathroom where she tames the cock confirmed that Amy Adams was the best thing in the movie for me.

Joaquin Phoenix, still channeling the affectatious craziness of I'm Still Here, is fascinating to watch, if nothing else. Fascinating to just look at: His gaunt gait, the crags in his face, the hare-lip sneer, the brilliantined hair. He is both Brando and Dean, but also a young Albert Steptoe with his old man crookedness, jaggedy elbows and scowl.
PT Anderson frequently puts Phoenix and Hoffman in scenes together, winds them up and just lets them riff. Most of this film is just the two actors bouncing off one another, and that's fine, but the film would be sapped of energy if too much of the runtime was given over to an actors' Method workout, wouldn't it?

*ahem*

This film would be quite something if it had a script.

There's always been a void at the heart of PT Anderson's films, but never more so than here. It is, I have to say, a handsome looking mood piece. The first film to be shot on 65mm since Kenny Branagh's Hamlet in '96, and the exterior scenes are suitibly stunning. Scenes like the one where Freddie runs across a field, or the bike riding across the desert flats, or the yacht sailing under the bridge demand to be seen on a big, big screen.
It has a wonderfully bright, airy feel as well. Unfortunately the content is equally blowy and lightweight. The film needed to bite at some point, to drive its point home, but it never does that. The first hour seems to be leading somewhere, there's a build, but at some point it seems to plateau and from then on it wanders.
At one point Dodd's son tells Freddie that his father is "just making it up as he goes along". This line began to feel more and more like the most telling one of the film, in regard to PT Anderson's own approach to it.

Anderson knows how to produce some great, show-offy scenes, and he does that in The Master many times. He also loves to indulge his actors, and get great ensemble performances out of them, and, again, that he achieves. It's a film that marches to its own drum, and I respect that, but it is also very thematically thin, even for him. There's just something essential missing, and it didn't engage anywhere near as much as I needed it to.

PT Anderson's masterpiece, or his most yawnsome self-indulgence yet? Both, in a way. I just needed it to be one or the other.

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