Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern 16 cert, general release, 143 min
Whether you love it or loathe it, this brilliantly acted and bizarrely conceived drama is an automatic one-of-a-kind from Paul Thomas Anderson, writes DONALD CLARKE
THE LATEST near-masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson – a drama of cults and their adherents in post-war America – is not much like a piece of contemporary conceptual art. For all its oddness, this lumbering beast still relies on traditional cinematic craftsmanship of the highest order.
Mihai Malaimare Jr’s photography veers from Douglas Sirk lushness (in the scenes of straight life) to forbidding winter shades (when characters are cast out). Jonny Greenwood’s angular score binds the sometimes disjointed action by bleeding unbroken from one scene to the next. Lexicographers have yet to coin superlatives for the performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a proper movie.
In one limited respect, however, The Master does suggest the better class of elephant dung installation. One walks away wondering what this bit was about and why that thing happened. Yes, this moment was blackly funny. Sure, that apparently irrelevant outburst sent the mind pondering. But are we sure we liked it? We’ve thought about little else since we’ve seen it. It has triggered argument.
Hang on a moment. Aren’t these all the things we ask for from a work of art?
The plot can, at least, be fairly easily summarised. Phoenix turns up as Freddie, a recently discharged, frequently drunk sailor, who, traumatised by war and an unsatisfactory upbringing, stumbles onto a boat owned by a guru named Lancaster Dodd.
Hoffman plays the cult leader, creator of The Cause, as a canny combination of calculating huckster and unholy fool. In a scene that compares favourably with any exchange in Anderson’s There Will be Blood, Dodd subjects his new subject to a psychological grilling that, despite Freddie’s resistance, eventually leaves the younger man in a state of furious weeping.
An uneasy partnership then develops. Freddie is never entirely sucked into The Cause. But he can’t quite pull himself away. He hangs around like a sadder Caliban repelled and attracted by a more unsure Prospero.
Much publicity has focused on the references to Scientology, and parallels to that weird quasi-religion are certainly there. The Cause’s taste for “processing” subjects echoes the business of “auditing” in Scientology. Dodd can be viewed as a version of L Ron Hubbard, founder of Tom Cruise’s favourite sect.
But so rich is the characterisation and so intriguing are the subtexts that such explicit connections quickly cease to play on the mind. Far more interesting is Phoenix’s courageously unfettered investigation of a damaged mind. Anderson has acknowledged the influence of John Huston’s Let There be Light from 1946, a suppressed documentary on soldiers traumatised in the second World War, and Phoenix’s performance reminds us how little was spoken about the effects of conflict on veterans of that conflagration.
It’s hard to escape suggestions of Brando, but, daring to be just as broad as Daniel Day-Lewis was in Blood, Phoenix seems to be striving for an even more physical class of performance. There is something of Jimmy Cagney in his desperate facial contortions. His large gestures remind us of silent actors such as Lon Chaney.
Stuck with a character who has little self-awareness, no great intelligence and no discernable charm, he bullies us into remaining interested in this angry weather system. When Freddie enters a posh party convened for Dodd, he casually reaches out and examines an elderly lady’s string of pearls. Such is the attraction of The Cause that nobody much minds.
Not every experiment works. An already (in)famous scene, during which, while Dodd bellows a folk song, Freddie imagines all the women naked, begins wonderfully before going on to queasily outstay its welcome. A late attempt to finally brainwash Freddie never properly engages.
The film remains, however, the most fascinating collection of loose ends you could ever hope to encounter. As events progress, a suspicion grows that Dodd’s wife (played with discrete menace by a fine Amy Adams) must surely be the brains behind the operation. Those intimations are never wholly confirmed. Is there something sexual afoot between the master and his rough disciple? Perhaps.
The Master is not short but, once you fill in these blanks, you find yourself constructing a meta-film that, if realised, would play for many, many more hours. That’s no mean feat. Allow yourself to be indoctrinated.