Is there much point in mentioning that The Master has divided audiences and that it is the long-awaited new film from a writer-director who has previously offered some of the best films of 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2007? Much better to merely say what one thinks it is all about.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a recent WWII veteran in 1950 who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to return to real life, Freddie jumps onto a yacht and stows away. He is suddenly introduced to the ship’s commander, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist theoretical philosopher” and the man behind “The Cause”, a pseudo-religion that he has doctored up and is touring around the country to promote. Quell is quick to fall under Dodd’s wing, but how will he react when the indoctrination begins?
The links between the film and the life of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology have been emphasised enough. The Master has its filmic antecedents in John Huston and Orson Welles – two big filmmaking personalities who excelled in 1940s Hollywood, but who also excelled in more outré films in the 1970s. John Huston gleefully played the repellent Noah Cross in Chinatown, a role that could also have inspired Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Huston’s very strange Wise Blood is also worth mentioning with its links between charlatans and religion. As for Orson Welles, one needs only to have seen his fantastic, mesmerizing F For Fake in order to be able to draw a lineage from the character Orson Welles presents himself as there to the character that Lancaster Dodd almost perfectly embodies – apart from when he is challenged and the whole brilliant façade crumbles into the very lack of restraint and animalism that he so detests. All that having been said, however, one film that exerts a most palpable influence on The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous, There Will Be Blood. The hype surrounding that film, as well as its own high quality, must have made it a tough one to top and The Master is almost self-consciously similar. One scene, in which Quell and Dodd go off in search of Dodd’s hidden manuscript in a rocky desert, can’t help but bring to mind the similarly harsh setting of There Will Be Blood. Jonny Greenwood’s score is equally an attempt to re-do what he did so well on the previous film. They work well as companion pieces with There Will Be Blood a look at greed and The Master a look at fakery, albeit with less of an emphasis on the perpetrator.
As in There Will Be Blood, the performances take centre stage with much of the film focussing on Joaquin Phoenix’s fantastically driven performance as a traumatized war veteran in search of a family. The film does go some way to revealing how, in the wake of the end of the war and with the influx of damaged veterans back into normal life, that dissatisfaction and isolation grew and a demand rose for such things as The Cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally good as a man whose rampant knack for self-promotion has found him at the head of a movement, the intricacies of which he himself can be caught out on. Initiation into The Cause is marked by a deadening sadism, entrants are harangued into submission by endless repetition of utterly meaningless actions until a personality much stronger than their own tells them to stop as they have discovered the truth. Bewilderment and belief are intertwined irreparably so that when Quell finally sees Dodd for the charlatan that he is (in a scene that is remarkable for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality of the exposition), the first thing that he does is half-heartedly beat up a fellow sceptic before he sits down and starts to cry. Though the film makes clear that The Cause did help Quell for a brief period of time and that more from the sense of belonging that the community gave him than the teachings themselves, the teachings of The Cause are both Quell’s entry and exit from the cult. The film concludes brilliantly with Quell performing a “processing” of his own (that being the questioning which is intended to bring out the true self of the subject and the beginning of their initiation into The Cause), though whether he is in fact becoming a second Dodd or is merely amusing himself, incredulous at how he had previously been taken in, the film refuses to say.
The film is not an easy watch and will probably have as many detractors as it will have supporters. There are too few challenging films that are as widely available and even fewer that are made with such confidence and artistry. Much of the joy of the film is in merely allowing yourself to be taken wherever the film and Anderson want to go, with many scenes being all about the performances and others being pleasingly confounding, safe in the knowledge that you are in the hands of a filmmaker who knows what he is doing. The Master is not as good as Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, maybe because cults and charlatanism is not as interesting as, respectively, loneliness and greed. However, Paul Thomas Anderson has managed to move away from the sometimes too-obvious influence of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman and has become a rather unique voice in American independent cinema and is probably the only one of that rather hit-and-miss Sundance group not to do a film that could wholly be discounted from his filmography – Alexander Payne aside.
The Master rewards attention and intellectual investment, as well as, of course, emotional investment. There are a lot of things that the film leaves unanswered and an attentive audience can leave the screening with a lot to talk about. Indeed, this review might well be amended, if not entirely renounced, in the coming weeks – just as it took several weeks and a second viewing before There Will Be Blood came together. That said, The Master is a difficult film to recommend as it is entirely up to each individual’s predilection for unconventional and challenging cinema and those intrigued enough have probably already seen it by now. Ultimately, The Master is a difficult film to wholeheartedly like but as an example of how invigorating and rich cinema can still be, it is unsurpassed so far this year – This Is Not A Film maybe being the sole exception.