Considering Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous directorial effort had been the milkshake-drinking exploits of the universally admired and respected There Will Be Blood, it was perhaps inevitable and somewhat unfair that there would be some level of disappointment with his follow-up, The Master. Whilst some proclaimed it another intellectually-challenging masterpiece, many saw it as nothing more than a pretentious bore. Yet, despite being a slightly confused effort, The Master is neither a downright classic nor a snooze-fest and is instead just a well-acted, beautifully shot and thought-provoking character study.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War 2 veteran with his fair share of problems; he’s a raging alcoholic, is prone to violent outbursts and has a disturbing obsession with sex. After a series of failed jobs he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the charismatic leader of a philosophical movement called ‘The Cause’. Dodd sees potential not just in Quell’s moonshining ability but also in his chaotic and conflicted mind and recruits him to into the group.
The exquisite production design coupled with Mihai Mălaimare Jr.’s breathtaking cinematography means that the film looks positively sublime and, aside from the sight of Phoenix humping a sand figure he has made, offers some truly captivating and beautiful imagery. Elsewhere Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood provides another eerily sinister score which, whilst not as darkly seductive as his compositions for There Will Be Blood, still makes for a good companion piece.
Much was made of Phoenix’s supposed over-acting with his portrayal of Quell, yet all the mannerisms he injects into his character, the hunched back, the darting eyes, the slow growl of a voice, make him wholly believable and it is fascinating to behold the unnerving power that he presents in this dilapidated human being.
However it is frequent Anderson collaborator Hoffman who gives the greatest performance as Dodd, a man who thinks of himself as restrained and in control yet nothing could be further from the truth and Hoffman’s terrifically attentive portrayal is mesmerizing. Amy Adams has to be one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood and despite being utterly convincing as Dodd’s cold and scheming wife, is lumbered with a character that sadly remains underdeveloped and a slight afterthought.
The similarities with Scientology were well documented before the film’s release and yet Anderson purposefully keeps a lot of ‘The Cause’ in the dark instead focusing on two men who seem lost in this ever-changing world. There is no doubt that by the film’s close we are pretty much back where we started and certainly the fact that we still know relatively little about ‘The Cause’ will intrigue and frustrate in equal measure.
Also, whilst Anderson’s films often exceed the two hour mark, unlike his best pictures like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, The Master does not quite warrant this. Its final twenty minutes feel like an unnecessarily slow unwinding and many will be disappointed that there is no escalating crescendo as witnessed in There Will Be Blood.
The Master will remain divisive and, whilst overlong and not as accomplished as some of the director’s best works, stands out as an enthralling, beautifully acted and photographed meditation on troubled souls trying to find a meaning to life.
The Master (2012), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is released on Blu-ray disc and DVD in the UK by Entertainment in Video, Certificate 15.