by Padraic Coffey
Paul Thomas Anderson does not create films that inspire apathy in the viewer. Few will respond to his latest, The Master, with a shrug of their shoulders. Here is a work that will frustrate, even bore, audiences expecting crowd-pleasing cinematic fare along the lines of Gladiator, Walk the Line or other films in star Joaquin Phoenix’s back catalogue. For those willing to surrender to its slow-burning pace, however, The Master just might be the film of the year. It swirls around one’s head, implanting images and sounds which remain long after the closing credits, and cements Anderson’s status as a filmmaker of extraordinary significance. Though it is stylistically the film furthest removed from his earlier output, its themes have been present in Anderson’s oeuvre since his debut, Hard Eight: self-made men in twentieth century America, and surrogate parent-child relationships.
It begins just as the Second World War is ending. Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a former US Marine, finds the transition to civilian life surprisingly difficult. Guided almost entirely by his impulses, imbibing self-brewed moonshine by the barrelful and, to paraphrase One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s RP Murphy, ‘fighting and f-cking too much’, he moves from department store photographer to harvester to stowaway on a ship. It is there he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), charismatic patriarch to an extended family of followers. Lancaster describes himself as “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher”, and is also the eponymous ‘Master’, leader of a pseudo-scientific self-help movement known as The Cause. Freddie, sceptical at first, is brought round to The Cause’s methods of healing, partly because of Lancaster’s persuasive oratory skills, and partly because of Freddie’s lack of alternatives.
It would be churlish to suggest that Joaquin Phoenix had yet to establish himself as an actor, having garnered two Academy Award nominations. Nonetheless, his performance in The Master is truly revelatory, worlds away from the enjoyable but insubstantial Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, or the camp sadist in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Almost channelling Fifties-era Brando, Phoenix’s awkward verbal delivery denotes a deep-seated trauma which may stretch back further than the conflict he has endured. It is an enormously physical role, Phoenix contorting his frame to convey Freddie’s internal anguish. He is matched by Philip Seymour Hoffman, again proving himself one of the most chameleonic actors of the last two decades. His Lancester is hushed and precise, commanding the attention of an entire room but, like Freddie, prone to furious outbursts when the authenticity of The Cause is questioned. This marks a welcome return of Hoffman to Anderson’s output, after his conspicuous absence from 2007’s There Will Be Blood.
It also marks the first time Robert Elswit has not worked on an PT Anderson film, having won an Oscar for his cinematography on There Will Be Blood. He is ably replaced by frequent Francis Ford Coppola collaborator Mihai Malaimare. The film, shot on 65mm, is beautiful to behold, flawlessly capturing the spirit of post-WWII America, from the white picket fences to the immaculately buttoned suits. The exhilarating, though clearly Scorsese-indebted camera flourishes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia now seem permanently resigned to Anderson’s past. As in There Will Be Blood, the tone is more stately, more deliberate, none of which detracts from its overall splendour. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who contributed the haunting score of There Will Be Blood, returns with more cryptic yet strangely appropriate incidental music. Given Trent Reznor’s recent Oscar for The Social Network, 2013 might be the year Greenwood is recognised as a legitimate composer in his own right, and not just one-fifth of a popular alternative rock group.
The Master has already been pigeonholed in many quarters as ‘the Scientology movie’. True, there are allusions to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, not just in physical appearance, but the era in which the film is set. Anderson allegedly screened the film for the movement’s most famous defender, Tom Cruise, remaining tight-lipped on Cruise’s response (“the rest is between us”, Anderson portentously stated). This is not a damning indictment, however. Anderson proved in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood that he is no moraliser. The Master concerns all crutches used to make life more bearable, be it religious cults or liquid intoxicants, as in the case of Freddie. Now in his forties, Anderson appears to be adopting the mantle of Stanley Kubrick, biding his time between film projects. The Master marks five years since There Will Be Blood, and ten years since Punch-Drunk Love, a startling contrast to the prolificacy of his early career. Let us hope, for the sake of cinephiles everywhere, it is not five years before his next feature.