The Master ★★★★½

Among lovers of cinema, there are few directors revered as much as Paul Thomas Anderson. With an oeuvre that reads as some of the best American cinema of the last 15 years, and a clear visual and thematic identity, he is one of the few auteurs left in Hollywood. For his follow up to his oft-cited masterpiece There Will Be Blood, The Master is a tale loosely based on the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, in a similar vain to how William Randolph Hurst inspired Orson Wells with Citizen Kane.

After returning from World War 2, former soldier Freddie Quell, brought to life by an extraordinarily physical performance by Joaquin Phoenix, fails to hold down a few part time jobs, is drawn to a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (the role which should bag Philip Seymour Hoffman a second Oscar). Dodd is a writer who has put his views of the world into a work of fiction, and has devolved quite a following.

Through television and film, the 50's in America have been remembered nostalgically as a time of boom, economic prosperity among newly acquired world peace. But what is often forgotten what happened to the men who fought for that peace when they returned home. Freddie Quell struggles to adjust to everyday normality, and is searching for something to fill the void in his life. Dodd, captivating, charismatic and manipulative, attempts to fill that void with his own brand of spiritualism. And it is not difficult to see how initially a lost soul like Quell would be drawn to a man like him, being able to offer meaning, purpose and a sense of something to live for. Hoffman is quite marvellous, giving arguably his finest performance of his distinguished career. His confidence and charm make it easy to see how so many could be cast under his spell. But he is at his most electrifying when his authority is challenged. When his belief on time travel is questioned at a party, the tension reaches levels usually reserved for thrillers. And later, when one of his followers questions a subtle but key (perhaps accidental) change in philosophy in his second book, he suddenly snaps, showing the truth and fragility behind the facade. It's a performance of great skill and technique, making Dodd a multi layered character when it could have so easily been a caricature. Award recognition will surely follow.

He's not the only one however that could be in with a shout come Oscar night. As his ambitious, Machiavellian wife, Amy Adams is a quiet revelation. Showing coldness and a steely determination not previously seen, she is the driving force behind her husband. Phoenix, also commands the screen with his electrifying and physical turn, making it a joy to behold when he shares the screen with Hoffman. As is common with Anderson’s films, the cinematic craftsmanship is exemplary. Johnny Greenwood’s unique score is unforgettable as it is at times unnerving. And Mihai Malaimare Jr’s cinemaphotography makes for perhaps the most visually stunning Anderson flick yet.

It's by no means near perfect. The ambiguity and strangeness make it Anderson’s least accessible film to date, and as the director himself admits, there is little in the way of plot for those who that is important. The circles that criticise Anderson for not knowing how to finish his movies won't be converted by The Master. He does take some narrative short-cuts in the final stretch. And there is no stand out scene of breathtaking cinema to rival the dialogue free opening of There Will Be Blood, the universal outbreak of song in Magnolia or the Scorsese inspired tracking shot through the party in Boogie Nights.

These are minor criticisms of what is a very impressive film, one that cements Anderson’s reputation as one of his generation’s most talented and important directors. Themes are shared with his previous works; the idea of a surrogate father/son relationship, the cult of personality and ruthless ambition, which will help increase the sense of a auteur at work among his followers. But no matter what your views of Anderson are, it's hard to argue against The Master as an intelligent, arresting and compelling piece of cinema.

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