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Review: The Master

An enthralling and elusive film, The Master provides a nuanced study of a post-war America, in which two leads play out an electrifying relationship. James Tyas reviews

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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
Length: 136 minutes

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature, is his strangest, most elliptical and, at times, frustratingly elusive work to date. Set in the 1950s and loosely based on the origins of the Church of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, The Master is less a roman a clef or expose of the vilified organization and more a nuanced study of a post-war America, in which confused, damaged souls in search of direction and meaning find solace in the philosophies of charlatans and charismatic leaders, reflected through the electrifying central relationship between the two leads.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a role that may well prove to be career-defining: Phoenix gives a performance of such feral potency that makes Quell cinema's most compelling outcasts since Travis Bickle. Quell is a hunchbacked alcoholic, maladjusted and prone to fits of unsolicited violence, meaning that he finds it impossible to hold down a job. We learn that Quell was discharged from the navy for psychological reasons, most likely post-traumatic stress, and we see him flung hopelessly into a society that doesn't understand him. Drifting aimlessly around the country, his only discernible talent appears to be concocting moonshine from ingredients such a developing fluid and paint thinner. One evening, strolling along the seafront, he decided to stow away on a yacht, belonging to Lancaster Dodd, the man who takes Quell under his wing.

Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), The L. Ron Hubbard figure, who for the first half of the film is only ever referred to as 'the master', describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all.. a hopelessly inquisitive man." Dodd is the effortlessly charismatic founder of pseudo-religion 'The Cause' based upon a metaphysical science and exploits his preternatural magnetism to acquire a considerable following. Despite his jovial appearance, we learn that Dodds is no less prone to fits of rage than Quell: in a scene at a fundraising cocktail party, he is reduced to barking "pig fuck" at a sceptic who questions whether Dodd's methods can actually cure cancer. At first, Dodd is fascinated by Quell, treating him like a curious animal, but then chooses to make him a disciple through a session of 'informal processing'(which bears resemblance to Scientology's auditing process), revealing deep-seated traumas from Quell's past.

Largely plotless, The Master posseses a mystifying queerness: centered around the ebbs and flows of the relationship between the two men, you never know where the film is going to take you next.

From Boogie Nights (1997) through to There Will Be Blood (2007), the theme of strained relationships between father and sons (or surrogate sons), is one that has constantly been revisited by Anderson. In The Master, the relationship between Dodd and Quell is far more equivocal and poses more questions than it answers. Is Quell truly devoted to 'The Cause' or merely the man behind it? Is Dodd only interested in Quell because he is the only person he is unable to completely sublimate? The two men are cast as polar opposites but simultaneously appear to be two sides of the same coin; a single divided soul. At times it feels like a paternal relationship, at others like the symbiotic relationship between master and slave. Most intriguingly, it could be read as an unconsummated same-sex love story, no more so than the closing scenes in which Dodd serenades Quell with a quavering rendition of '(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China'.

Largely plotless, The Master posseses a mystifying queerness: centered around the ebbs and flows of the relationship between the two men, you never know where the film is going to take you next.This is also why it will appears to be, for some, irritatingly unfocussed, exacerbated by the fact that Anderson never taking a specific moral stance on either of his protagonists. Despite this, The Master remains utterly hypnotic, each shot so meticulously framed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. that you can lose yourself in it and the off-kilter, not-quite-rightness of Jonny Greenwoods score seems to suspend everything in perfect asymmetry.

The Master may very well be Anderson's most enthralling work but it probably isn't his best. It is a film that, much like Lancaster Dodds, is too opaque and unknowable to truly love; always grasping for an unquestionable greatness that seems just out of reach. While it is uniformly well-acted and sumptuously photographed in 65mm print, the lingering suspicion that The Master may not be the masterpiece we had expected remains. Its numerous ambiguities may merely be incoherencies and, as fans of his previous work, we may have been duped into thinking there is deeper meaning than there actually is. But, Like all of Anderson's previous films, it demands to be watched and re-watched and constantly pondered over.

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