What is The Master? Director Paul Thomas Anderson described it as a ghost story and compared it to Casper, tongue firmly in cheek. It shares supposed similarities with the beginnings of scientology and it is foremost a love story, not necessarily between a man and a woman either. It is also quite possibly the best film of the year. A month ago I wrote an article that asked the question What is the best Paul Thomas Anderson film? and I left it open for The Master to possibly answer. And it took me two viewings to decide that, unfortunately, it isn’t. But, and this is important, it ranks a very close second.
There’s a good chance you’re already quite familiar with Anderson’s work already and that would explain why you’re interested to begin with. Outside of fans and regular cinemagoers, this doesn’t offer much for the casual viewer. Unlike Boogie Nights, which commands every possible kind of film viewer, this is a continuation of his recent art house streak. There’s a middle section that goes on a little too long and it consists of Freddy Quell, a WW2 Navy veteran that gets by as a factotum, walking back and forwards between a window and a wall. Those more in tuned with accessible films will find this an incredibly frustrating experience and will no doubt be turning and asking, “What is happening?”
Above all, The Master is a film about fatherhood. Played magnificently by Joaquin Phoenix, Freddy is in search of a sense of direction that war has taken from him. He’s incredibly sick, mentally speaking, and not just because of the poisonous concoctions he creates. He’s seen unspeakable horrors that only he can possibly imagine and civilian life exists somewhere else entirely for him. Lancaster Dodd, a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance that ranks among his career bests, finds solace in Freddy and uses him as a guinea pig to trial new methods of ‘hypnosis’ for The Cause, a new guide to living that will supposedly save humanity. Freddy’s Dad has ceased to be and Lancaster’s son has rejected him. They are perfect for each other, as the case would seem.
Gone are Robert Elswit’s open landscapes, a frequent Anderson collaborator responsible for the moving camera that defined his earlier films Boogie Nights and Magnolia. They’re more appropriately replaced by claustrophobically tight framework by Mihai Malaimare Jr. Where his earlier films were practices in the Robert Altman approach of multiple characters, The Master is more in line with There Will Be Blood and is again even smaller. (Time will tell if he ever returns back to his former style.)
The world consists of two men – Lancaster Dodd, the Master himself, and Freddy Quell. Lancaster is a man who has the world at his fingertips, seducing men and women with his medicine labelled The Cause. It’s incredibly controversial, not just because of Dodd’s insistence it can go so far as to cure “some forms” of leukemia, but he’s so charming and convincing you don’t see it too far of a stretch to imagine this theory of going back trillions of years into your past as a spirit has improved some people’s lives. His theories are openly challenged, whether forcefully or though casual inquisition, by both friends and critics and although his responses are ill conceived, they’re the stuff of brilliance.
It’s a film that deserves to be nominated for at least two categories at the Oscars – best film and best performance. Both Hoffman and Phoenix are worthy of winning, especially Phoenix, whose Freddy is so lacking in self-awareness his face is a contorted mess as he struggles to understand the greater world he is forced to live in. Hoffman plays off this beautifully as the sophisticated Dodd who pens his second tome with the note ‘A Gift To Homo Sapiens.’ Both men are so fascinating it is easy to forget the other smaller players in the film, ranging from a hardline Amy Adams to the spellbound Laura Dern.
Scientology eludes me as a subject I know anything about but it isn’t required knowledge. It’s not a direct comparison but a cherry picking from the history of the religion by Anderson. The undoing of the bond these two men share is a destructive yet poetic force that is horrific in its nature. The film is a perfect balance between the ugly and beauty of men and the unrelenting, unforgiving nature of us all. But above all, as Dodd so eloquently explains himself, it is about a man and a boy sharing an unlikely path together and helping each other out so tightly it can only be of a destructive nature. The ending is far and away one of the most satisfying of the year.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams