Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Running Time: 143 minutes
Release: 16th November
“What is your name? What is your name? What is your name? Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure? Do your past failures bother you? Do your muscles spasm for no reason? Do your past failures bother you?”
Attempting to lift the veil somewhat on the Church of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson has approached his latest film, The Master, in a way similar to Scientology’s infamous personality tests. Repetition of shots and dialogue, and a general sense of narrative disfigurement all lead to a strange hypnotic sense of unease and confusion and, ultimately, one of the year’s best movies.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic naval vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, finds himself stowing away on the boat of enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) after bumbling his way through a myriad of jobs following his return from the war. Dodd—a self-professed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, but most of all a man, just like us—takes a fancy to Quell’s scoundrelous ways and invites him to aboard and to join The Cause—a fictitious yet clearly L. Ron Hubbard inspired order.
Touted as the film to take down Scientology, The Master actually shies from the scathing cinematic lashing many expected. In fact, it’s as much about Scientology as There Will Be Blood was about exploding oil derricks, acting as a catalyst for Anderson to once again dwell on the modern nuclear family. The theme of patriarchy is again at the forefront, with perhaps his most perverse twist on it yet—Dodd and Quell’s relationship jumping between that of childhood friends, father and son, master and pet.
In a performance that would be a lock for an Oscar were Daniel Day-Lewis not running for president this year, Phoenix is a feral maelstrom of intensity. Equal parts child, simpleton, and beast, he is every bit as explosive as Quell’s torpedo juice moonshine. His staggered gait, constant hunch and emaciated torso all add to the vision of a man who is irrevocably damaged and perpetually volatile.
In stark contrast, then, is Dodd, a tamer of dragons and manipulator of minds, he’s an all singing, all dancing, rootin’-tootin’ son of a gun. Hoffman infuses him with a gregarious bravado, a glowing master of ceremonies whose alluring veneer is occasionally eroded away by the splashes of bootlegged paint thinner. At his side, Amy Adams plays a wonderfully two-sided role, a quiet background presence, both meek and malevolent, handling his issues at times with a jerking persuasion.
There are problems with The Master. Arguably, it peaks somewhere around a third of the way through in a chillingly tense and unflinching “processing” between Dodd and Quell. Its climax, too, veers far from the path you feel you’re drifting towards. However with such stunning cinematography on display, Jonny Greenwood’s mesmeric and metronomic score, and career bests from its three leads, The Master is undoubtedly a bold triumph. It’s this year’s finest propaganda film, no doubt adding countless more believers to the Church of Anderson.