Though Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master shares much thematic and stylistic common ground with all of his earlier films, which I consider to be uniformly excellent, its closest companion is 2007’s brooding and restless There Will Be Blood. Both movies contain protagonists associated with religion who are drawn as coldly-calculating manipulators and charlatans, and both focus on flawed men who seem to be completely at odds with the rapidly-changing society that surrounds them, unable to engage in successful, unconditional relationships with pretty much anyone else they know.
There are other commonalities, of course, such as Jonny Greenwood’s jarring scores and the strength of the acting. Additionally, both films are grand in scale and seem to play out under an invisible but omnipresent dark cloud; they are heavy works, with little let-up, and each has an ominous tone that is at odds with many other films covering similar periods in American history. There Will Be Blood contained none of the rabid excitement or get-rich-quick triumphalism found in other films covering the oil boom, such as In Old Oklahoma or Boom Town (it does, admittedly, share some similarities with the bleak 1956 James Dean film Giant, even though the earlier film is more concerned with racism), and it painted a rather disconcerting picture of the early stages of 20th Century capitalism. Similarly The Master rejects (or questions) the notion that post-war America in the late 1940s was filled with optimism and a blanket desire to embrace the future, with Joaquin Phoenix’s destructive drifter Freddie Quell unable to settle after returning home from military service.
Quell is a complex, unorthodox man. All of Anderson’s films to date include at least one character that fits such a description, but both he and There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview in particular have a dark, troubling, self-destructive violent streak, they are both stubborn to the point that it makes them dangerous, and both are seemingly incapable of finding any kind of inner peace or happiness. A Rorschach test administered by his superiors in the Navy reveals that Quell has long-standing issues regarding sex, and this is further seized upon by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a philosophical movement called The Cause, who concentrates on Freddie’s pre-war relationship with a young woman named Doris (Madisen Beaty) during another psychological test. Freddie seems to be obsessed with sex; he is also violent, awkward around other people and unimaginative. None of the testing he is subjected to appears to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, but he has clearly been affected by the war. (Though Anderson was (understandably) at pains to point out his film was not specifically about either L. Ron Hubbard or Scientology when it was first released, but did admit that they influenced his story. The similarities are there for everyone to see, and the director’s research into Dianetics and Hubbard’s life presumably means there’s an authenticity to many scenes.)
Quell meets Dodd after spending some time drifting from one job to another and from one place to the next. He returns home to find employment as a photographer in a mall at first, but leaves after needlessly getting into a fight with a customer. A heavy drinker, his home-made potent brew later poisons a fellow picker on a cabbage farm and he is chased off by the other itinerant workers (this is shown with a stunning steadicam shot, the camera staying parallel to Phoenix as he sprints through the field). Homeless, he opportunistically boards Dodd’s boat during a party, but is soon welcomed into the fold by the leader and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams completing a trio of actors that was, in 2012, arguably one of the best you could hope to put together). The shrewd Dodd develops a taste for Freddie’s liquor, but is equally fascinated by the man’s violent streak, and quickly brings him into his inner circle, aware that this may be of value.
There is much paranoia and mistrust in the story that follows. Other members of The Cause become concerned about Freddie’s propensity for violence and his fondness for boozing, and eventually they suggest that he is either insane, or an undercover agent, or both. Dodd sticks up for Freddie, and the strong-willed Peggy tries to impose a tee-total regime on both men, fearing alcohol will ruin the work she and her husband have put in to the movement. As the group tries to spread the message of The Cause across the east coast, Freddie’s relationship with Lancaster begins to change when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie his father is making it all up as he goes along; eventually Freddie just drifts away, a rudderless ship in search of another port, and even a later conciliation with Dodd will not bring him back for good. Freddie is no Cause convert, he’s simply happy to feel wanted and to have a temporary family. The war veteran seems outwardly keen to learn from Dodd at first, and exhibits signs that he wishes to change his ways and prove his commitment to The Master, but by the end of the film he has ultimately remained the same kind of person as before (signified by the similar opening and closing scenes of him cuddling up to a female body made of sand on a beach).
While that may not sound particularly interesting, The Master is an engrossing tale, largely due to the strength of its principal characters and the acting performances behind them. Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams all received Oscar nominations for their work portraying unlikeable characters here, and although none of them actually managed to win an Academy Award for this film, they are all very good indeed. Phoenix in particular stands out; despite the rave reviews, nominations and awards he has received in the past for his work in Gladiator, Her and Walk The Line, this is far and away his finest performance to date for me, conveying perfectly Freddie’s cognitive dissonance and inability to comfortably slot into post-war society.
Anderson opts for a slow, unrushed pace, again similar to that of There Will Be Blood. Some feel the film is pedestrian as a result, but the lack of action allows for sustained focus on the actors, their characters and the way in which they interact with each other. It also seems to add tension to proceedings, and is fundamental in creating the brooding, contemplative tone.
The Master is subtle in its criticism of The Cause, or rather it is subtle in its criticism of real-life bodies of belief and practices that are similar to The Cause. Anderson is mainly interested in examining the personality of a man who would lead such an organization, and seems less inclined as a result to focus on the kind of person that gets suckered in. Dodd’s trip down the east coast sees him enlighten or convert dozens of people – mainly upper class socialites with enough spare time to become mildly-interested, and bored housewives on the cusp of1950s change – but they are all nameless extras aside from Laura Dern, who is underused as Helen Sullivan, a Cause supporter. We do get some insight into the organization and its practices via the filmmaker’s examination of the Dodds, of course, but not much. The film’s focus is on the relationship between surrogate father Dodd and Quell, and it never strays too far away from this.
Mainly shot on 65mm film, which was later cropped to keep a consistent aspect ratio with scenes shot on 35mm, The Master still looks sumptuous on the TV screen. Anderson worked with Francis Ford Coppola’s favoured cinematographer of recent years, Mihai Malaimare Jr., which makes this the first time he has not collaborated with regular DoP Robert Elswit (due to scheduling reasons). Elswit has returned for the forthcoming Inherent Vice, but Malaimare’s work here is excellent; the movie’s opening shot of a boat’s wake sets the bar high and there are many visual treats in the hours that follow, particularly with regard to close-ups.
If anything, it’s a shame the film isn’t longer. It’s disappointing that Freddie’s life between 1945 and 1950 is reduced to a few scenes covering just two jobs, but this short period in the movie at least allows for the early(ish) introduction of the other main characters and it is actually very powerful as it stands, empty of cliche. If it feels like a frustratingly non-committal work at times that’s probably due to Anderson’s reticence in terms of damning the principal characters or allowing them to change in any meaningful way; they are easily judged, as they have clear flaws and psychological problems, but the director is at times more than sympathetic towards them. This is surprising to say the least, given the general animosity felt towards such cultish spiritual groups in modern times.
Rather than an examination of Scientology or any other cult, The Master is primarily a moody and thoughtful character study with an occasional violent bite. It contains a superb performance by Phoenix, two very good ones by Adams and the sadly-departed Hoffman, and Anderson continues to produce excellent work.
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Running Time: 138 minutes