The Master almost needs two completely separate reviews, as it’s an audience divider if ever there was one. Some people with undoubtedly find Paul Thomas Anderson’s film tedious, repetitive, pointless, confusing and boring. However others will find it absorbing and endlessly thought-provoking, although even they will have difficulty coming to any firm conclusions about what the movie is ‘about’.
To be honest, while I liked the movie an awful lot, I’m still not 100% convinced it isn’t cinematic masturbation, but if it is, it’s masturbation turned into an art form – and possibly cinematic masturbation about cinematic masturbation.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns from the Second World War slightly unbalanced by his experiences in conflict, but he’s supposed to throw himself back into normal life with no support. Unpredictable, sexually precocious (perhaps obsessed) and increasingly alcoholic, Freddie becomes a bit of a wanderer, until he drunkenly ends up crashing on the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Dodd is The Master of a cult called The Cause, a movement that uses unproven metaphysical ideas and techniques to supposedly clear people of past traumas that have stayed with them across numerous lives. While Freddie is initially sceptical, Dodd takes a liking to Quell, and Freddie begins to enjoy being part of something. He falls for the charms of The Cause, eventually becoming Lancaster’s right hand man.
However other members of the group, including Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), eye Freddie suspiciously, feeling he could be a danger to the movement. Eventually Freddie’s devotion begins to waver, worrying that Lancaster is making it all up as he goes along.
It’s a long, complex movie that can be as frustrating as it is fascinating. Cinema is often criticised for the fact that so many movies lay everything out in overly simplistic fashion, with clichéd plots, simple characters, easily understood emotional arcs and everything tied up in a neat bow at the end. The Master is the opposite of that – a character study where the filmmaker refuses to explain anything, instead simply showing us and then letting us make up our own minds. Well, that’s not quite true, as there are endless moments when the film seems to be offering metaphor, revealing hidden truths or suggesting that’s it’s about to tell us what the ‘point’ of the film is, while never quite doing so.
It means that those who like to know exactly where they stand with a movie will absolutely hate this, but if you’re open to a journey that’s more about where it allows your own mind to take you, The Master has a lot to offer.
Is it the story of a closeted homosexual and his unexpressed love for a younger man who’s different to anyone he’s ever met before (the song at the end certainly suggests it could be)? Is it a critique of organised religion? Is it specifically about Scientology (the character of Dodd was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and The Cause is based on his ‘religion’)? Is it about the psychological quagmire those returning from war are thrown into if they’re simply supposed to get on with life and have no help?
It’s partly all these things and a lot more besides, while never being fully about any of them. Even seemingly simple things get complex in this film. Initially Amy Adams’ role seems small, with her there merely there to back up her husband. However a menace soon emerges, but again it’s never fully revealed what this means. Some have suggested she’s is really the power behind the throne, and that while Dodd believes he’s in charge, he’s actually his wife’s puppet. However just as easily, she could represent the danger of the true believer – as while Dodd may or may not believe what he says, for him it’s could be largely about power, while for his believers it’s their entire lives and identities, and with that comes a desperate extremist fervour that can easily become dangerous.
It’s all fascinating, perplexing, strange and often brilliant. None of this would have worked without some wonderful performances, and it’s little wonder that all three of the film’s Oscar nominations were for its acting (Hoffman, Adams and Phoenix). Philip Seymour Hoffman is remarkable as Dodd, bringing just the right amount of charm and humanity to his role, even while you’re never sure if Lancaster believes what he says or not.
Joaquin Phoenix is slightly more difficult. Rather like Daniel Day Lewis in Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, he plays a strange character and does it in a rather mannered way, so that you can rarely forget he’s giving a performance. Like the film, it’s both thrilling and distancing.
While it’s a performance some will love and others will find a tad false, it’s oddly fitting. There is another interpretation of the movie, and that is that it’s about film itself. It’s possible that ‘The Master’ is actually the director, the creator of a made-up world, with his followers the actors, whose job is to take the words of their leader and turn them into a form of reality. Even many of the exercises in the film that are supposedly part of the cult’s way of healing past traumas are actually very close to what trainee method actors do.
Where does this leave us as the audience? Once more the movie never quite says, while suggesting we love to get caught up in this, taking a fiction far more seriously than perhaps it deserves. But as with all the other ideas about the movie, although by the end it gets incredibly close to suggesting it’s a giant meta-film, it resolutely fails to resolve itself, to the point that when the credits start to roll there’s a sense that the story is continuing but we’re not going to see it.
Many will find this incredibly frustrating, but others will adore the way the film opens itself up for them to bring their own ideas and thoughts. It might have been nice to have a bit more closure, but if there had been, it would have gone against the grain of the entire movie.
There’s also absolutely no doubt that the film looks utterly gorgeous. It’s the first movie since Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of Hamlet to be shot on 65mm film, a format offering incredible clarity. Anderson even eschewed the now usual practice of using a digital intermediary stage to do the colour correction, preferring old fashioned methods to retain the purity of the image. Of course it’s had to go digital for Blu-ray, but it still look amazing, with a wonderful, soft handling of colour, pin-sharp clarity and a gorgeous sheen to the entire movie. Likewise the audio is good, which is just as well due to the fact that Joaquin Phoenix has a tendency to only use half his mouth (literally) and mumble his lines.
Overall Verdict: As frustrating as it is wonderful and as baffling as it is endlessly absorbing, some will hate The Master, while those willing to open themselves to its particular brand of suggestion and possibility will find a lot to love in this tale of religion, the emotional trauma of war and film itself.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac