So accomplished is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s catalogue of work, that every new film he presents is met with a degree of excitement and expectation reserved for only the most celebrated and enduring of filmmakers. Despite a relatively short career (one comprising less than two decades), Anderson has already hit the high notes with an excellent portfolio of work that includes, amongst others, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Anderson has never really produced a poor film, and the notion of seeing him reunited with long-term accomplice, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to cast their creative eyes over the thorny subject of a pseudo-religious cult, is a prospect certainly worth relishing.
Ultimately, The Master is a film which provokes an immense sense of awe, chiefly through the performances of its double-act of leading men; but it’s one which also instils a lingering sense of doubt and, dare I say it, disappointment.
As the Second World War draws to a close, US seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is little more than a drunken, sex-obsessed husk. As his comrades frolic on Pacific island beaches, Freddie is quietly mixing drinks, cavorting with women made of sand and draining and drinking the fuel from his ship’s torpedoes. It is abundantly clear that Freddie is struggling with post-traumatic stress, his efforts to maintain a steady job post-war end in disaster, violence, and soaked in home-made booze.
Ultimately Freddie’s penchant for hooch leads to the accidental poisoning of an elderly co-worker forcing him to flee his job for his own safety. Tired, desperate and inebriated, Freddie stows away on a passing boat unaware that it currently plays host to an eccentric cabal known as The Cause, led by their enigmatic and beguiling leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), known to his acolytes as “Master”.
Freddie is welcomed into the fold and joins the ensemble in spreading Dodd’s good news, learning the ins-and-outs of the exercise known as “processing”, while simultaneously battling those outside influences who would seek to derail The Cause.
Hoffman’s Master is of course a thinly-veiled reference to author and founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard; and his performance as the mesmeric leader of The Cause is a thing to behold, as Hoffman imbues the leader with a tangible sense of self-assurance and thoughtfulness. Watching the commanding Dodd deliver his sermons to an adoring congregation, with their bizarre lectures on quasi-psychology and spirituality is as tempting as it is baffling. As a study of the cult of personality, it’s genuinely unnerving. Whilst every reasonable bone inside you should reject the nonsense on offer, it’s all too easy to see how Freddie and the rest of the herd become so affected and entranced by the Master’s teachings, so powerful and believable is Hoffman’s delivery.
As a counterpart to Dodd’s measured sermonising, Freddie’s alcohol-soaked, rotten futility is excellent too. Joaquin Phoenix brings a demoralising physicality to a role that under normal circumstances would elevate itself above the rest. The fact that it’s a performance that plays second fiddle says more about Hoffman’s presence in the piece than it does about Phoenix’s.
Together the performances are, save for the odd mumble of Phoenix’s, as damn-near pitch perfect as is possible. The setting in which these two performances are to be found is a beautiful, studiously reconstructed image of post-war USA. It’s a USA in which the iron curtain of atomic-age paranoia has most definitely descended; and yet the vestiges of hopefulness, of dewy-eyed belief in the American dream, still remain.
If Paul Thomas Anderson is guilty of anything, it’s that his stories can have a tendency to find themselves coughing and spluttering towards a resolution. There Will Be Blood’s grind towards the finishing line was expertly aided by its visual and aural magnificence; there was little room for dissent as you were being so firmly and skilfully grasped by the balls. Boogie Nights took a descent into a drug-fuelled hell which contrasted with its upbeat and romping (albeit sleazy) opening salvos, but maintained some sense of urgency; in the case of The Master ,the culmination of nearly two-and-a-half hours of soul-searching appears to be less assured.
A final act which appears to tread much of the same water trod in the film’s middle third feels like Anderson is searching for an ending which never comes. Freddie’s vision, experienced towards the end of the film, is one which exists as a symptom of his general lack of growth both spiritually and practically. For all the processing and sermonising, he’s never really moved on. A sobering thought, but it’s one which belies the fact that, as an audience, neither have we. Despite the mesmeric performances of Hoffman and Phoenix, you are left with a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction at a film which very much feels like it has a beginning, and a middle.