After the critical and commercial success of There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson returns after a five year hiatus with the eagerly anticipated The Master. In the interim Anderson has found himself the subject of great acclaim hailing him as the great American director and the one everyone else has to observe and follow. Whilst this may be true and he does an outstanding job on this film, which never slips below being visually captivating and stunning, much of the narrative flow seems to have taken a back seat in order for Anderson to create a work which is easy to admire but a little harder to love or even, at times , understand. In essence although he manages to coax great performances out of his two leading stars- Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix- and capture some amazing scenes the sum of parts is greater than the whole and may leave audiences feeling perplexed.
The tale revolves around a cult referred only to as ‘The Cause’- apparently not Scientology- who set out to convert, indoctrinate and recruit lost souls. Stumbling on the former naval veteran and now sexually obsessed, heavy drinking, low end criminal stowaway Freddy Quell- Phoenix- on his yacht, cult leader Lancaster Dodd-Hoffman-recognises the very character he feels the need to ‘save’ and recruits him into ‘The Cause’ putting him through his paces whilst attempting to weaken his resolve.
Immediately there is resistance to this random newcomer, who is obviously also a loose cannon particularly from Dodd’s wife and son, both who recognise his involvement could lead to trouble. What follows are various scenes of confrontation and one memorable moment in the desert when Dodd encourages Quell to ride a motorcycle towards an object in the distance and Quell simply keeps on riding out of sight and Dodd’s clutches. This is not the end of Quell’s involvement with the cult however as Dodd comes to him in a vision and encourages him to follow him to England and he duly follows these instructions and this is where the movie ends.
The Master is certainly a powerful film and is bound to be in the running for several Oscar nominations- Phoenix and Hoffman in their many confrontational moments feel as if they are slugging it out for the heavy weight ‘Best Actor’ prize already- and it is a quite astounding film. Somehow it never actually manages to draw the audience in and there is a feeling that technical skill- the cinematography and lighting are amazing throughout-l has eradicated much of the emotional content of the narrative. It is bit of a hard slog-verging on drudgery at times- but, in this, it is also refreshing to have a film which doesn’t tie everything up quite as neatly as we are used to in Hollywood films of this stature.
All in all its grandness is The Master’s major flaw but at the same time it is its main saving grace. For this dichotomy alone- as well as the Oscar worthy performances and cinematography- it is still worth seeing. Just don’t expect to say you enjoyed it.