The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s wholly engrossing, slyly disorienting study of the symbiotic relationship between a feckless drifter and a charlatan cult leader in the years after WWII is an extraordinary film; brilliantly realised and audaciously eccentric.

The Master opens in the days before the end of WWII, as the Japanese surrender is being negotiated and American sailors are enjoying shore-leave on a sandy Pacific island. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an able seaman with a talent for making high-proof moonshine from whatever chemicals he finds lying around. Newly demobbed and unable to adjust to civilian life, he spends some time in a veteran’s hospital, where uncaring psychiatrists diagnose him with a post-traumatic stress disorder and don’t seem to notice, or care, that he is drunk all the time.

Having cleaned up enough to get a job as a photographer in a department store, and keep it just long enough to fall back off the wagon, Freddie flits across the United States, eventually ending up in a field in the middle of nowhere harvesting cabbages with migrant workers. After almost killing an elderly man with a bad batch of his booze, Freddie finds himself a stowaway on a yacht belonging to the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), or rather, the yacht that the self-proclaimed visionary, literary genius, nuclear physicist and philosopher has borrowed from a rich benefactor and is using as a training centre for his quasi-religious movement, The Cause.

Before too long, Freddie is making his moonshine for Dodd, using paint-thinner, crushed-up pills and orange soda to loosen the older man’s writer’s block. The two become friends, perhaps because Freddie’s home-made hooch mirrors Dodd’s home-spun hogwash. After submitting to Dodd’s psychological profiling in a thrillingly tense question and answer session, Freddie becomes the Master’s right-hand man and surrogate son, booze-supplier, confessor and sometime violent enforcer. “You'll be my protégé and my guinea pig”, Dodd tells him, with a flourish, but Freddie is just content to have a roof over his head and three square meals a day. Actual self-realisation will take more time, according to Dodd and his manipulative wife Peggy (superbly played by a steely Amy Adams). As Dodd works his mountebank magic on Freddie’s broken mind, the story follows his ups and downs as he struggles to write his new book (on the restorative power of laughter) and stay one step ahead of his enemies, while his sidekick tries to cope with his troubled past, and mourns his lost love (played in flashback by Madisen Beaty).

In the same way that There Will Be Blood was loosely based on the life of American oil tycoon Edward Doheny, The Master is undoubtedly inspired by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the cult Church of Scientology. Yet it also encompasses every other entrepreneurial evangelist, self-help saviour and pavement prophet in American history, malignant and benign, from Dale Carnegie to Jim Baker, Pat Robertson to Jim Jones. Anderson’s portrait of Dodd is not damning, exactly, but he carefully positions the guru as a symptom of the enormous social upheaval such as that experienced in the aftermath of WWII when, at the dawn of the Atomic Age and faced with unspeakable horror and mass death, people went looking for answers to the big questions: why are we here? What’s the point of it all? Dodd is a vulture, a smart, confident charlatan with a natural-born ability to identify weakness and speak directly to it. He finds an exemplary subject in Freddie, traumatised by war, floundering in alcohol and brim-full of regret.

With his vulnerable, fractured face, Phoenix’s performance suggests the grimaces and squints of the Method actors who came of age in the 1950s, such as Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, while the preening, pretentious Hoffman, playing a role Anderson wrote specifically for him, is like a plump Orson Welles, dancing nimbly across the screen, around the chasing police and lawyers, around any explanation of his ridiculous theories and skipping, laughing, ahead of his followers; the people who buy his books, pay for his seminars and, like Laura Dern’s wealthy Miss Sullivan, honour him with the title of “Master”.

Phoenix and Hoffman, both at the top of their game, slug it out all the way through Anderson’s story, as he surgically dissects post-War American life, separating the parasites from the prey, the profiteers from the paupers and the crooks from the credulous. From time to time, Anderson breaks the story with unannounced dream sequences, if indeed they are dreams, strange deliriums that tie elements of the story more tightly together or hang, loosely, like worrying threads. Johnny Greenwood’s discordant orchestral score takes a little getting used to but has a similar effect, unsettling and sometimes distracting.


“You know the rules of the game,” Judi Dench’s spymistress M tells Daniel Craig’s James Bond with an exasperated glare, “You’ve been playing it long enough.” The 23rd Bond film in a franchise that celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, director Sam Mendes Skyfall manages the neat trick of striding ever forward while repeatedly looking over its shoulder, into its own past.

The story opens in media res with Craig’s taciturn Bond and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) racing around the crowded streets of Istanbul in pursuit of a swarthy villain, who has stolen a computer hard drive containing the names of all the double agents the British Intelligence service has placed in terrorist organisation. The chase comes to nothing, and worse, it seems Bond has been fatally wounded by Eve’s friendly fire, falling feet first over a waterfall in mournful slow-motion. No body is found.

Just in case anyone thinks I’ve given the game away, all of this happens in the first ten minutes, before the trademark credits sequence, scored by Adele’s immediately forgettable theme song. Bond has survived the cascade, of course, and escaped to somewhere remote and tropical to recover. Back in grey, damp London, Dench’s exhausted-looking M also appears to be on the way out. Newly promoted Whitehall mandarin Mallory (a delicately priggish Ralph Fiennes) is gently pushing her towards the exit door. At the same time, a mysterious enemy agent with a shadowy connection to M’s past has somehow infiltrated the MI6 fortress beside the Thames, hacked the computer system and exploded a bomb. From an idyllic shoreline, where he has been medicating himself with whiskey and women, Bond hears of the attack on his mentor and returns to the nest. 

Soon, videos of the compromised agents being executed by a variety of masked terrorists start appearing on the internet, making MI6 look incompetent and Bond and M seem like throwbacks to a bygone age, whose guns and guile are no match for a new breed of techno-anarchists. Having waited in the wings for more than an hour, the villain finally takes centre stage in the form of Javier Bardem’s Silva, a bleached-blonde, majestically camp former agent with enough charisma to cover the emerging plot holes, Silva doesn’t just want to destroy MI6, he's out for vengeance.

Mendes’ decision to emphasise plot and character over non-stop action is commendable, with the director allowing his ensemble cast the time and space to flesh out characters that previously were truncated to allow for another chase or thunderous explosion. Dench’s M is effectively given a co-starring role with the veteran actor delivering a sterling performance, alternating between steely authority and tender frailty. Craig, who has settled into the role admirably, finds new character notes to add to Bond, playing him as an aging, inscrutable presence who allows the characters around him to fill in the story while he concentrates on the messy business at hand. The supporting cast is of a higher calibre than we’ve seen in the franchise previously.  Bardem’s Silva is a particularly juicy creation, the most memorable villain in the franchise since the days of Richard Kiel’s Jaws, a creepy, eerily unruffled sociopath with seemingly unlimited powers.

Skyfall gathers together all the familiar Ian Fleming elements of the series; the guns, the gadgets, the exotic locations, the beautiful women and the unsubtle product placement, but places them in a changed world – one whose origins lie more in the glossy pages of a modern superhero comic than a cheap paperback. Mendes’ film has less in common with the traditional all-action 007 fantasy than with Christopher Nolan’s moody Batman trilogy, which reconfigured the template for the modern blockbuster by framing a heroic story through the lens of geopolitics and psychology. Bardem’s clownish Silva is the Joker without his make-up while Bond is revealed as a self-sufficient orphan whose lack of emotional connections to the world outside MI6 allowed M to remould him into a deadly, disposable asset. Like Batman, he is a man without a past but its in exploring this vacuum that Skyfall finds it’s most interesting and progressive material. He might race around the world to face fearsome enemies but is at his most vulnerable when he finally returns to his childhood home.

“We don’t go in for exploding pens any more,” quips the bespectacled young boffin Q (Ben Whishaw). Neither do audiences, but Mendes’ tinkering can only go so far. In the end, the traditional requirements of the Bond formula take precedence over any post-modern reinvention. Skyfall achieves its aim of returning the 007 franchise to the gritty high of Casino Royale after the addled low of Quantum of Solace, but the chance to find a new direction for the fifty year old series is tantalisingly spurned. Maybe next time.