Although he has only directed six films, Paul Thomas Anderson is now considered one of the best film directors in the world. His last feature, There Will Be Blood (2007), which was given eight Oscar nominations, is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest American movies ever made.
Film critic Danny Leigh recently said; “The movie business is built on hype” and sadly, he may be right. Deserving or not, films can be propelled into box office successes or doomed to fly off the radar depending on their reputation. However, with Anderson’s latest film the hype is to be believed.
The Master is loosely based on the life of L Ron Hubbard; the founder of Scientology, here renamed Lancaster Dodd and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He seizes the role of ‘The Master’ and leads a cult called ‘The Cause’, publishing books about his ideas involving time travel and aliens, and using guerilla tactics to quiet non-believers.
His most faithful subject is Freddie Quinn (Joaquin Phoenix), a sailor who was discharged from the navy in 1945 for mental health problems. His addiction to the potent cocktails he concocts for himself from paint thinner, cough syrup and petrol make him a dangerous creature, and a subject begging to be saved.
Their relationship is what interests Anderson, and what drives the narrative. Power-hungry Lancaster Dodd steps in as a father figure to Quinn, hypnotising him into revealing his troubled past, and trying to cure him through ‘informal processing’, using questionable methods involving interrogation and confrontation.
Phoenix is an enigmatic presence on screen, giving the best performance of his career. Reportedly, the actor studied captive animals for the role, and it shows in his wild and unpredictable movements, throwing his body around like a bull seeing red, yet fragile and disturbed and truly haunting at the same time.
Exemplary of this is the rumour that while filming an aggressive outburst in prison, Phoenix spontaneously bit a chunk out of a mattress and destroyed a toilet, which was later discovered to be an antique in the museum where the scene was being filmed.
Matching his vigour, Hoffman also impresses as the charismatic leader, possessed by his own beliefs. His sweaty red-faced alpha male commands respect, but is charged with an explosive energy that forces you to confront your own opinions on the nature of cult.
The film was shot on 65mm, a medium rarely used by directors due to its high cost (its last use was in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996). This medium allows an incredible amount of detail in the cinematography, and gives the film a photographic quality, constantly returning to scenes of beautiful aqua blue sea, comparable to the paintings of Edward Hopper. Even shown through digital, (instead of on 70mm projectors), as it will be around the country, audiences will notice the beauty of individual shots, landscapes and sweeping plains.
Much of the film is an ode to The American Dream, and a portrait of a moment in time, where post-WW2 entrepreneurial activity was encouraged, but many men were still in recovery from posttraumatic stress disorders. As we have recently seen in Walter Salles’s adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road, men like Dean Moriarty were just out to get laid and have a good time. The Master perfectly captures this escapism, but also makes us question the fate of war veterans.
It’s hard to fault The Master. It’s near perfect and is guaranteed to meet expectations, if not exceed them.