The Master ★★★★

It's always better to take a good few steps back after watching something as thematically rich and elliptical as Paul Thomas Anderson's latest. Take a take breath, go and do something else and let it seep into your subconscious.

It’s a stately, lumbering beast of a movie, and utterly unrepentant about it. It must have been a hard sell to studio execs. A two-and-a-half hour epic about a cult that’s obviously inspired by Scientology (bit controversial with all the high-profile Hollywood devotees); except it’s not really about the cult but its founder; except it’s not really about him either; more about a demobbed sailor with some unspecified trauma; except it’s about all of these things.

How to review such a monolithic enterprise in any real coherent and cogent way? I wasn’t even sure how much I was enjoying it while I watched, even though I was kept riveted by the utterly superlative acting by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult’s founder Lancaster Dodd, and especially Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Quell is a man so twisted by his past and the inordinate quantities of his own lethal hooch he consumes, Phoenix seems only to act from one side of his face for most of the film, the other slightly glazed and drooping. It’s extraordinary to watch. For these performances alone it’s a must-see. However, my thoughts about it refuse to clarify themselves, or sort themselves into any semblance of order. But here goes:

1) The film’s dreamy drift through its own narrative isn’t down to poor plotting or Anderson being unsure what he is trying to say. The meandering nature is a reflection of Quell’s mental state – the opening scenes of him on a beach, then working as a photographer, then being forced to leave (at high-speed) a job as a cabbage farmer after accidentally poising a co-worker with his home brew, then stumbling onto Dodd’s yacht – are shown one after the other with no time-scale, sense of defined place, or even any real sense of concrete chronology. There are flashbacks which may be true remembrances of times past, or waking dreams, or visions. Where most directors would use a different colour palette, or film in slightly soft-focus to give us a clue, Anderson leaves us guessing.

2) On the same note, but less obviously, the elliptical nature can also reflect Dodd’s constant revision of the tenets of his faith. Of course, all faiths have certain internal inconsistencies that are apparent to any outsider. What is interesting for me is that The Cause is never explicitly condemned. It is obvious that Dodd’s techniques are cobbled together from basic psychoanalysis with some cod-mystical past-life wish-fulfilment thrown in. What makes people happier than believing that death is not the end of everything? Anderson lets Dodd hang himself with his own rope. Witness the explosion at the house party when someone has the temerity to question him.

3) Dodd is arguably not the Master. The film can be seen as Quell’s attempt to become his own Master. It also makes a case that Amy Adams’ Peggy Dodd is the real Master; the driving force behind the expansion of The Cause. While Lancaster is all ideas and snake-oil Barnum patter, Peggy is providing Machievellian steel and Lady Macbeth manipulation. It raises the question of why someone with such a business brain and no-nonsense approach to life is following such an organisation. Perhaps she’s the brains behind it, and Dodd is the face and the voice?

4) There are echoes of Eli and Daniel’s relationship in There Will be Blood between Dodd and Quell. It also reminds me strongly of Boogie Nights in places as Quell finds himself in a surrogate family, much like Dirk Diggler falls in with Jack Horner’s rag-tag bunch of porn stars and drop-outs. Both comparisons bring to mind a push-me, pull-you conflict between the earthly and material (alcohol, sex, money) and the spiritual and emotional (religion, the soul, acceptance, love). In a typically Andersonian spin though, redemption isn’t always earned through the adoption of the spiritual. Quell achieves his through the final rejection of Dodd’s credo.

5) Finally, why am I only giving The Master four stars? A film that’s caused me to think this deeply about it must be worth more? I haven’t even mentioned how gorgeous it looks; how there are certain scenes that will stay with me for ever - how I found myself trying not to blink in sympathy with Quell as he’s interrogated by Dodd during their first encounter, and the astonishing montage of Quell dashing from wall to window interspersed with some even-more bizarre attempts at curing his demons (my brain keeps returning to Amy Adams saying the word ‘cunt’. Wrong, but so right…). Despite all this I’m not convinced it’s a film that I actually like so much as admire the hell out of. I like Punch Drunk Love and There Will be Blood, I love Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

Who’s to say I won’t come to love it over a repeat viewing? But I think I’ll leave it a good while before I do so again.

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