The Master and There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson can do a lot of things you can’t, simply because he’s Paul Thomas Anderson. For example, Mr. Anderson, or PTA for brevity, can make a film without dialogue for 30 minutes plus. He can polish awards for every single film he’s made. PTA can be favourably compared to Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. He can ring up Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and chat about composing. He can give Maya Rudolph a nice big sloppy smooch without fear of police intervention. He can also make a film that shoots to the top of the Best Picture list before a single frame is viewed. But is the hype justified?
The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), fresh out of service at the end of the Second World War and fresh out of his mind every single night on whatever shoddy booze he can make, fermenting and distilling assorted chemicals and vegetables with the highest disregard for health and safety. On one particularly Scottish night out Freddie awakens on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), self proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher”. But these mantles mask Dodd’s true identity, the head of ‘The Cause’, a cult in all but name. Before you can say “Scio-what-ogy” Freddie is handing out fliers and bashing up non-believers as he and Dodd become inseparable.
“If you figure out a way to live without a master,” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd intones, “any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” This mantra is at the core of The Master, this power struggle between Freddie, craving a meaning to life and Lancaster seeking a subservient slave, a man to, to put it simply, master. Like the greatest Films with capital F’s, The Master is obsessed with questions and in no rush to answer them.
But the two questions on most lips are, is it really about Scientology, and is it worth the title of year’s best? Both are answered with a yes and a no. In the Scientology camp the tactics used by Dodd in his indoctrination of Freddie certainly echo parallels to those stories leaked by ex-L.Ron devotees while Freddie’s fervour to defend his new found faith will remind many of the BBC’s John Sweeney and his run-in with the group on Panorama.
As for the weight of ‘The Year’s Best Film’, there are few that can withstand that amount of pressure and so months after storming Venice and Toronto, The Master is already facing a mild critical backlash in some quarters. Without the stigma of foreknowledge of critical acclaim there is still plenty to get excited about. Joaquin Phoenix gives an outstanding, career-best performance as Freddie Quell, a sex crazed animal of a man with a quiet sensibility and a body seemingly wrecked by self-abuse. His opposite, Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, is even more brutish, clouded by smart suits and the illusion of superiority.
Both men are as beastly as each other in the most different of ways. Both want something from the other and as the film glides along their frustrations with each other show their own self-hatred. It’s not all doom and gloom, after all Joaquin claims he thought he was making a comedy, and it would be an interesting experiment to see if you could watch The Master solely as such.
The Master deserves its accolade as ‘one of’ the year’s best films if not the absolute singular title. What it can boast, however, is a closing line for the ages. The simple truth behind a very simple man.
An acquired taste, The Master isn’t going to win any converts to the religion of PTA but for those that bowed to the alter of There Will Be Blood, his latest matches that tale of oil, ambition and greed with one of faith, manipulation and lust. The masterclass of performances from Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams is worth the ticket price alone.