With The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered his most complex, confounding, and ambitious work to date. A film that never for a moment feels less than confident in execution but one which slips through your fingers when you reach out to pull in its essence, at least after one viewing. It could well be Anderson's best work and certainly his most visually outstanding. Though it will continue to exasperate many viewers it is unmistakably a work of pure artistry and further proof that Anderson is currently working on a level above and beyond his American peers.
Following the destructive exploits of a Navy man from the fading days of World War Two it's obvious from the start this character is a disturbed individual; an alcoholic borderline sex addicted loner shown humping sand statuettes of women, masturbating violently into the ocean, and creating moonshine liquor out of anything he can get his hands on, such as torpedo fuel. This man is Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who's actions speak of a ultimately frustrated man. Much of cinema gives us destructive types left right and centre but here Phoenix gives us the mother of all problems; a man whose very genetic make-up looks to be made up of all the tortured dregs the world can muster. As the veteran Freddy is released back into 'normal' society his psychical attributes become shockingly apparent, his body contorted unnaturally with hunched back and protruding elbows, his mouth half able to produce speech akin to that of a stroke victim. Here is a man spat out of the war machine, a broken man that a dynamic cult leader will later take upon himself to attempt in mending.
Freddy's reintegration into society is far from easy and after a string of problematic employment starting as a department store photographer and ending in the John Steinbeck like fields of migrant workers, he finds himself homeless, hopeless, heartless. This montage of aimless post-war searching is placed eerily within an alien like America, a country reeling and finding its feet after years of tragic maladjustment. Like Japan, America coped by increasing consumer culture to create an idealised (utterly false) perception of unified home and country. These efforts during the McCarthy/Eisenhower led times hit home with Freddy taking pictures of seemingly perfect families and couples whose strained smiles appear starkly perverse next to the world torn reality of the film. Jonny Greenwood's score does a phenomenal job once again of representing the everyday as abnormal; his music harbouring classical motifs through a twisted carbine that nests in the 1950s setting while producing an hallucinatory effect.
On his wayward journey the sailor is struck by the lights of a grandiose boat as those on board merrily dance and sing the night away, perhaps as an unconscious decision to return to the sea or merely succumbing to the cold he boards the vessel; Anderson's camera follows Freddy, framing him against the ship in a fashion highlighting a sense of destiny. On board he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man introducing himself as many things but above all the leader (The Master) of a new movement (or cult) known as 'The Cause'. This meeting and all its preamble struck me on a gut level like the literature of F. Scott Fitzgerald, this feeling of a doomed predestined relationship like the meeting of Carraway and Gatsby, of Rosemary Hoyt and the Divers. These characters drawn into extravagant worlds that promise much, ending only in heartbreak. A destined meeting made all the more unsettling by The Master's teachings of past lives coupled with his instant liking and familiarity of Freddy.
It's this relationship between Dodd and Freddy that forms the spine to the film, a spine some may find flimsy and wavering in its refusal to define itself. But its the mystery in this fateful bond that keeps the intrigue fuelled. Dodd is clearly fascinated by the former sailor but his motives are left open to us while he keeps Freddy close by throughout, even against the wishes of his followers. The magnetic force between them is mightily ambiguous, Freddie perhaps feeling understood by The Master's auditing techniques (a process amalgamating hypnosis with interview technique) as he taps into his deepest traumas, Dodd seeing Freddie as ultimate proof of The Cause's effect, even the most damaged of subjects. The possibilities go on.
As The Master approached its release the film's ties to Scientology engulfed it into a media frenzy of speculation. This could perhaps explain the divisive nature of the film's reception, after all, despite this being Anderson's first film in five years, the return of Joaquin Phoenix to acting, and the general culminating talent on board, it was the Scientology tag stuck to the 'hype machine'. Those looking for an indictment of cult behaviour, of charlatanism, and cynical deceit, will find only disappointment here despite the film's clear historic connections.
Anderson's film does not judge but merely observes, his motive not to attack but to answer how a movement took off and why people were drawn in? The film shows us a broken America, one of unease and uncertainty taken in by the charisma of a man claiming to know the answers of the mind, answers that heal the soul. If Daniel Day-Lewis channeled the ghost of John Huston in There Will Be Blood, here Hoffman hones a persona similar of Orson Welles; a commanding man who seduces others with charm, humour, and a confidence that inspires trust. Even as the curtain begins to slip with signs of Dodd doubting his cause he is not condemned but rather pitied with wife Peggy (played by a key and wonderfully understated Amy Adams) hinted at being the real driving force. It's the reading of the characters faces that drives the action, with Anderson utilising tight close-ups excessively throughout. The camera observing every facial tick or drop of eye contact, fascinated with what's behind the eyes, ever frustrated that it doesn't have access. If speculation of the picture's use of 70mm film-stock alluded towards epic landscape sweeps and extensive use of exteriors, what we actually have is a largely interior chamber piece employing such a cinematic device to capture the upmost detail of expression.
With its lack of narrative drive and character arcs The Master will frustrate many in its refusal to supply a payoff, even Anderson's previous film lived up to its title while testing expectation. But this haunting study of Man's constant quest to define his existence only clenches its grip when it's over, pulling you in again to restudy its many mysteries, including how much of the story is interchangeably viewed from the point of its three main players. Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered another example that cinema is far from dead as he presents us with scenarios and characters further indicating we've far from seen it all, wrapped in a package that only he, right now, can give us.