Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film as a writer-director has been his most eagerly-anticipated yet. Set largely in a post-World War II America, it’s an enigmatic, expansive drama which draws on (but doesn’t necessarily develop) familiar Andersonian themes of surrogate father figures, troubled young men, and chance.
Like There Will Be Blood before it, The Master opens gloriously. In a luxurious, often-wordless montage of scenes, we’re introduced to recently discharged marine and semi-feral drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s a borderline sexual deviant with a serious taste for alcohol (paint thinner, anyone?) and a lightning quick temper. After one disastrous booze-related adventure too far, Quell flees, and stows away on a boat which happens to belong to charismatic writer/intellectual Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Family man Dodd takes a strong shine to Quell, and sets about indoctrinating this troubled soul into his mysterious sect named simply: The Cause.
It’s a beautifully evocative period set-up rife with possibility. Shooting in 70mm, Anderson conjures shots so gorgeous and lovingly composed that they simply beg to be seen on the big screen. Further adding to the intoxicating initial atmosphere is Jonny Greenwood’s arrhythmic, astonishing (and occasionally terrifying) score, which is part-fairy tale, part-Musique concrète, and ramps up the discordance to mirror Quell’s jagged psychological state.
However, following some riveting early exchanges between Quell and Dodd, just when things should start to get going, something odd happens: the bottom simply drops out of the film. The plot dissolves into thin air, and Anderson can’t seem to decide what to focus upon. Consequently it’s a film about everything and nothing at the same time. The characters become repetitively stilted, and the dynamic of The Cause’s following is especially poorly articulated (rumours that this film would take on the roots of Scientology prove fairly unfounded). Many scenes brutally overstay their welcome, an issue accentuated by the deathly seriousness with which the film takes itself.
Much of what keeps the film alive is the performance of Phoenix, who proves himself to be among the most thrilling actors of his generation. His turn is one of reckless energy (but also real physical control) and genuine unpredictability. However, there’s also something slightly disproportionate between his heroic level of commitment and the material that shrivels up beneath him. When Robert De Niro was smashing himself into a prison wall in Raging Bull, the fierce commitment of the film itself was tangible; here there’s only a tentative wispiness.
As Dodd, Hoffman is rich in charisma, but the film can’t seem to decide what it thinks about him, and his big speeches sound like leftovers from the notes of Magnolia’s sex guru Frank Mackey. As Dodd’s formidable wife, Amy Adams shows some tantalising glimpses of what she might have been able to offer had Anderson written her a proper character. Instead of triangulating the relationship between the men, she circles around the film’s outskirts as they play out their overcooked homoerotic bondsmanship.
Anderson deserves credit for refusing to spoon-feed his audience, and there’s no denying that this is a courageously unusual picture especially when viewed within the context of the standard narrative constraints of mainstream American cinema. However, wilful obscurity doesn’t automatically equate to wholly successful filmmaking, regardless of the director’s obvious talent. And the slackly edited, underwritten The Master, for all the many things it has going for it, represents a first in the PTA canon: it’s often quite dull.
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