There are two kinds of ‘tent pole’ movie; one is the derivative, big-budget blockbuster that bankrolls a studio, while the other is less frequent but far more challenging – succour to the film connoisseur.
Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of only a handful of directors whose films are considered must-see events to any self-respecting lover of cinema.
Since his confident debut Hard Eight, Anderson’s career has followed the kind of upward trajectory most film-makers can only dream of, from his brilliant porn industry drama Boogie Nights, through to the epic ensemble piece Magnolia, the marvellously off-kilter romantic comedy-drama Punch Drunk Love and most recently the profound There Will Be Blood.
Anderson treads a similarly bold path with The Master, only his second film in almost a decade. It centres on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two Navy veteran who gets dumped back into society with little or no prospects, a nervous condition and a serious penchant for his own brand of moonshine, made largely from paint thinner. He seems not to understand social boundaries and is obsessed with sex, an unhealthy mixture shown in an early scene set during the war when he starts dry humping a sand sculpture of a woman his fellow seamen have created on a beach.
Freddie is a powder keg who drawls through a clenched jaw and a sneered lip and resembles a coiled spring in the way he walks, all hunched over like a primate. Constantly escaping his own tortured psyche, he runs away from one unnecessary scrape after another until he takes refuge on a yacht that for all intents and purposes looks like it belongs in another world.
The boat is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself to Freddie as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man” and, fascinated with this new arrival, invites him to stay. It emerges that Dodd is the ‘master’ of ‘The Cause’, a Scientology-like movement that believes the Earth is trillions of years old and its inhabitants contain within them countless past lives.
Dodd looks upon Freddie as a “silly animal” who has “wandered from the proper path” and decides to help him, akin to a dog and its master. Freddie is at first dubious, but soon embraces Dodd’s unconventional approach to self-improvement and becomes his right-hand man.
Part of this approach is ‘processing’, a psychological question and answer session that Dodd puts Freddie through in the film’s finest moment. Anderson suffocates the viewer, refusing to pull the camera away as we see Freddie’s tortured soul unburden. It’s bravura filmmaking (with mesmerising performance from both actors) and one of the scenes of the year.
A requirement of The Cause is to record everything that is said by Dodd, most revealingly during a scene when a group of young women are writing down a speech in which the Master espouses the pursuit of perfection by rejecting our animal instincts and controlling our emotions. Freddie finds one of the girls attractive and, ignoring Dodd’s words passes her a note saying: “Do you want to fu*k?”
Dodd comes from the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ school of cult leaders, often allowing his emotions to get the better of him, whether it be envying Freddie’s child-like, unfiltered existence, moments of self-doubt or bouts of rage when his teachings are questioned (most revealingly during a riveting exchange with a skeptic). Although it doesn’t take a genius to see the Master is a fraud, it takes Dodd’s son to scrape off the veneer for Freddie when he tells him: “He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”
Dodd’s wife Peggy (unnervingly played by Amy Adams) reveals herself as the real power behind the throne, tolerating her husband’s love-hate relationship with Freddie, but subtly steering him when the need arrives.
Johnny Greenwood’s mesmeric score amplifies the discordant world these characters exist in, while Anderson also interjects period music to masterful effect (the use of Irving Berlin’s ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ while an attractive, enigmatic woman walks through a shopping mall and eventually encounters Freddie is inspired).
The Master is, in essence, a yin and yang love story between two men from very different backgrounds desperate for what the other has. Whether Anderson intends this meaning or not, one could easily draw parallels to a post-war America at turns equally arrogant and deeply uncertain about its future.
The Master has been pilloried in some quarters for its lack of narrative progression, but these critics are forgetting There Will Be Blood was hardly plot-heavy. Both are studies of entrancing characters whose individual traits are so powerful and entrenched they are bound to them forever. Oil magnate Daniel Plainview is just as alone and consumed by his relentless quest for money and power at the end of There Will Be Blood. Freddie is a broken machine doomed to spend eternity stuck on that beach alongside that pliant, sand sculpture, while Dodd will continue to believe he and The Cause hold all the answers.
Just as There Will Be Blood was one of the great films of this century’s first decade, The Master will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics.