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.

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