Does every person need a master? Either a person or a cause to steer them through the seas of life? Damaged veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) certainly appears to. Having survived a tour of duty as a sailor in World War II, he’s demobbed into a society he’s ill at ease with. Displaying a startling ability to create alcoholic beverages from whatever he finds lying around – photographic chemicals, torpedo fuel, and possibly cabbages – he’s seldom sober, and prone to getting into fist fights.
Suddenly finding himself inebriated and on a cruise ship after fleeing yet another dead-end job, Freddie discovers his rudder in the avuncular, preening form of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A self-styled master of a small yet slowly growing movement he calls The Cause, Lancaster promises to give Freddie a meaningful line of work, if only he’ll continue to churn out his peculiarly intoxicating brand of hooch.
In the most bizarre of circumstances (he can scarcely remember getting on the boat, let alone his first conversations with Lancaster), Freddie becomes the freshest recruit in an order that is itself just finding its feet. Although Lancaster is the de facto leader of the group, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) holds her own particular sway; after a service somehow descends into an evening of singing where all the female members of the congregation agree to take their clothes off, she privately chastises Lancaster. “We don’t do orgies,” she says. “It didn’t work out for the others, and it won’t work for you.”
Lancaster has charisma, but not necessarily all the power in this particular relationship. Instead, he uses his showmanship to guide his burgeoning congregation ever upward, and if he’s the Master, then Freddie – simple minded, unpredictable, yet loyal – is his attack dog. When a dissenting voice dares to criticise Lancaster’s claims to be able to cure disease and travel through time during a gathering of New York’s wealthy elite, Freddie responds by beating him to a pulp.
Although The Master’s chronicles the early days of an American movement (controversially inspired by L Ron Hubbard’s founding of Scientology), it is also a romance. It’s about the unrequited love between Freddie, a man in touch with his animal side as no other member of the Cause’s congregation is, and the supposedly cerebral Lancaster. As Freddie drifts in and out of the Cause’s orbit, we gradually realise that Lancaster’s becoming quietly obsessed with his “protégé and guinea pig”, and their simmering relationship is laced with a faint air of tragedy.
The Master, then, is about the tension that lies in Lancaster’s relationships with Freddie, his wife, and his wrapt congregation. It’s a prolonged look at the weird kind of symbiosis a cult requires; between the self-appointed master who desires power and sway over others, and his acolytes, who crave direction and grounding, even if that grounding happens to be absolutely absurd; Lancaster has his disciples sit and scream abuse at each other for hours on end, repeatedly describe the textures of walls, and record on tape the spurious memories of their past lives.
It’s a brilliantly acted film, but then, you’d expect that from Paul Thomas Anderson. Hoffman’s great as the self-described “writer, nuclear physicist, philosopher, inquisitive man” who also happens to be a huckster and a buffoon. Phoenix is even better, submerging himself so utterly into Freddie, a simple man whose service in WWII has left him a hunched, frail and wounded husk.
Hollywood actors love to make themselves ugly, to leave their beauty and charisma behind to create screen personas like Aileen Wuornos or Jake LaMotta. Phoenix does just this, without recourse to make-up, wigs, or the extreme gain or loss of weight. Through a shift in syntax, accent and posture, he absolutely becomes this character, and his commitment and consistency is often astonishing.
In smaller roles, Amy Adams is great as the powerful woman behind the master. Laura Dern shows up in an all-too-brief role as a Philadelphia convert who lends Lancaster her home, while Christopher Evan Welch, who gets but one scene as the voice of reason first shouted down by Lancaster and then beaten out of the picture by Freddie, is similarly memorable.
Yet in spite of all this committed, outstanding work, it has to be said there isn’t a performance in this film that’s as singularly captivating as Daniel Day Lewis’ turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. That movie’s long, hard look at the foundations of the oil industry, and the collusion of the church in its inception, was carried by Lewis’ extraordinary performance, which utterly captivated even when the film was at its more laborious.
Anderson takes a similarly long time to relate his character arcs and make his points in The Master, but without a character like Lewis’ Plainview to provide a lynchpin, it’s less effective. Admittedly, The Master is a two-handed effort, whereas There Will Be Blood was entirely carried by Lewis (albeit with a little help from Paul Dano’s weasel of a minister). But while Phoenix and Hoffman work themselves to the bone in their roles, Anderson’s writing can’t quite bring them to life as effectively as the anti-hero of his 2007 movie.
There are still moments to cherish in The Master, and those who love Anderson’s knack of creating tension in a scene in oblique, unusual ways will also adore his finer bits here. The cinematography and editing are top-notch, as is Jonny Greenwood’s music. But the movie feels less satisfying as a whole than There Will Be Blood, or Boogie Nights, or Magnolia.
Why is this? Maybe it’s because the subject matter isn’t quite as engrossing as his previous films. Maybe it’s because Anderson’s so interested in ambiguity that he leaves little of substance for us to grab onto. Or maybe it’s because the dialogue, although good, doesn’t have the hooks of those other films (there’s no milkshake analogue here).
There Will Be Blood was about compelling bastards. The Master is too, but this time, it’s sad to say, the bastards are less compelling.
The Master opens exclusively at the Odeon West End showing in 70mm from 2nd Nov for 2 weeks and then will open UK wide 16th November
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