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April 2013

The Master

cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, and Rami Malek

writer and director: Paul Thomas Anderson

144 minutes (15) 2012
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
EIV blu-ray region B

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who is becoming more and more himself with each new film. His career began with the oddly brittle Hard Eight (1996), a film set in the darkened lanes leading away from the Las Vegas strip. Though far from an entirely successful film, Hard Eight demonstrated a principle that continues to inform Anderson's filmmaking, namely that everything begins and ends with character.

The most striking thing about Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), is that while all three films are intensely memorable, none of their pleasures can be conveyed by a simple plot synopsis. To think of these films is to think of their characters and moods, not of their plots and themes. In one interview, Anderson described Magnolia as a film that began quite small and intimate but 'kept blossoming' until it ended up as a three-hour ensemble piece. This image of a film that keeps 'blossoming' out of the writer's control makes perfect sense once you realise that Anderson begins his creative process by creating a group of unbelievably complex characters. Once created, these characters are then placed opposite each other and allowed to interact on entirely their own terms. Because Anderson's characters are the focus of his creative attention, they tend to stick in the audience's mind. Because Anderson's narratives tend to emerge entirely from the interactions between his characters, they tend to assume quite unconventional forms.

When I say that Anderson is a director who is becoming more and more himself, what I mean is that he is not only getting better at creating the types of characters that can sustain entire films, he is also more and more willing to allow those characters an entirely free reign in dictating the shape of the plot. For example, while Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler is an incredibly memorable character, it is clear that he was created to fit with Anderson's ideas about the golden age of pornography. Similarly, while Magnolia also has its fair share of great characters, it is clear that Anderson struggled to fit those characters into a narrative and that this struggle resulted in not only an extended running time but also the need for a deus ex machina such as a rain of frogs to actually bring the character interaction to an end. Indeed, if we see Anderson's career as a journey towards entirely character-based filmmaking then we must consider There Will Be Blood to be his first fully mature work.

Though loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 political satire Oil!, There Will Be Blood is best understood as a sort of astronomical phenomenon in which various characters struggle against the enormous gravimetric pull of Daniel Day-Lewis' oil baron Daniel Plainview. A perverse and terrifyingly ambitious man, Plainview's madness expands as he consumes everything and everyone around him including his devoted son. The film ends when one of the few people to resist Plainview's ambition comes before him as a supplicant only to be humiliated and beaten to death for his troubles. On a purely dramatic level, There Will Be Blood is something of a hot mess: Despite being a compelling character, Plainview does not so much change as become more himself and many of the big encounters between Plainview and the other characters feel unbalanced and under-written as the film does not spend quite enough time building up Plainview's relationship with these characters. Indeed, the final scene is mesmerising to watch but it does not feel particularly satisfying as the character of the preacher feels more like a minor irritant than a serious barrier to Plainview's ambition. While there is quite a clear sense in which Anderson is not a particularly good storyteller, the power and depth of his films are so overwhelming that they seem to call into question the need for a film to actually tell a good story in the first place.

Much like There Will Be Blood, Anderson's latest film The Master is an exploration of the sort of American tough guy that used to feature in the films of John Houston. However, unlike There Will Be Blood, which featured one tough guy and a load of minor characters, The Master features two huge and complex personalities whose relationship builds and unravels with a degree of dramatic focus that has heretofore been sorely lacking from Anderson's films. Vast, sprawling and occasionally downright obtuse, The Master is a brilliant psychological study in two shattered halves.

The film begins at the close of the Second World War as the grubby and priapic sailor Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) amuses himself on a pacific beach alongside dozens of other sailors. Forced back into the regular world by the outbreak of peace, Quell takes a job as a photographer only to sabotage his position by needlessly picking a fight with a customer. From there, Quell moves from job to job, and place to place, but every time he starts to get comfortable, he gets drunk and messes things up. However, this rapid descent into the gutter is arrested when Quell wakes up on a ship commanded by a man who calls himself the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic but unsuccessful author in the process of reinventing himself as a mystic. Clearly based on scientology's L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd uses hypnotic suggestion to regress people into what he refers to as their past lives. Despite his newfound success and nascent respectability, Dodd sees in Quell a kindred spirit and the pair bond over Quell's ability to concoct a strange drink from various household poisons including paint thinner. Ushered into Dodd's organisation, Quell becomes a loyal member of the Cause but, despite Dodd's fondness for the younger man, his family and entourage have serious reservations about Quell's fondness for drinking, fighting, and fucking.

The Master is utterly defined and consumed by the relationship between Quell and Dodd. Electric in every scene they share, Phoenix and Hoffman slide over and under each other like tectonic plates: forced not just together but also apart by the very pressures that formed them. Much like There Will Be Blood's Plainview, Dodd and Quell are perverse and singular individualists who will stop at nothing to extract as much pleasure from the world as humanly possible. However, while Quell's libidinous urges compel him to keep chasing booze and women, Dodd recognises that some short-term pleasures must be sacrificed if greater and more enduring joys are to be achieved. Dodd's combination of self-restraint and self-loathing is both symbolised and embodied by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), a powerful and focused individual who shapes, controls and exploits Dodd's desires like a combination of muse and dominatrix. Peggy knows that Quell is trouble because she knows that the two men are identical, and that Quell's failure to control himself poses a threat not only to her control of Dodd but also to the Cause as a whole.

Much of the drama in The Master comes from the two lead characters moving between adoring and hating what they see of themselves in each other. At times, Dodd adores Quell's bravery, at times he hates his refusal to follow the rules and stick to a plan. At times, Quell loves Dodd's ability to convince rich people to give him money, at times he loathes that Dodd obsesses over what others think of him. The more The Master progresses, the greater these tensions become, and the greater these tensions become, the more demanding Quell and Dodd become of one another, as Dodd begins testing Quell's faith just as Quell tests Dodd's loyalty. Eventually, the tensions become too much and the pair part company, but a dream-like vision lures Quell back to Dodd, a number of years later.

When the pair meet for the last time, their differences have become more evident and more threatening: an older Dodd appears more masterful and his ability to control his baser instincts has now grown to the point where he no longer has any time for Quell's anarchic spirit. Sick and rudderless, Quell now so reminds Dodd of how he might have turned out that he now sees him as posing an existential threat to the Cause... what if other people started noticing the similarities that are all too obvious to Dodd and his wife? What if people stopped paying his bills and helping to expand his empire? For Dodd, being around Quell would mean being forever reminded of the person he really ought to be and nothing is more harmful to a lie than a very simple truth.

Visually, The Master takes its cue from the oppressive and claustrophobic relationship that confines the two central characters: dark, internal, and obsessed with sweating faces, and distended smiles, the film glories in the ugly psychodrama that dominates the stage. Brilliantly, Anderson only breaks this oppressive atmosphere when the two characters are apart meaning that Quell's beachside frolics and motorised escapes feel as warm and inviting to the audience as they do to Dodd. Indeed, it is only by showing us these moments of existential freedom that we realise how dark and claustrophobic Dodd's life has become. This theme of attraction and revulsion is also evident in a particularly powerful scene in which Quell breaks through a screen door in order to bid his pre-war sweetheart farewell: Quell stands outside in the fresh air; his girlfriend stands in a pitch black room behind a screen door. Quell wants to be with her... but he has to go... he has to be free and that passionate ambivalence is precisely what Quell and Dodd feel when they look into each other's eyes.

While there is no denying that The Master is a beautifully made and surprisingly intense film, it is also a film that fails to make full use of its considerable assets. Indeed, despite being inspired by the founder of scientology, Anderson's film offers no real commentary on cults other than the rather bland observation that the men who lead them are occasionally rogues. This criticism can also be levelled at There Will Be Blood in that Anderson took a complex satirical novel about the Tea Pot Dome scandal and reduced it down to a story about an oil baron being a bit of a prick. That Anderson's films lack anything approaching a subtext or a message is undeniably a result of his placing characters at the centre of his creative process. There Will Be Blood and The Master suggest that, while this process can produce very intense films with beautifully realised characters, it is not particularly adept at producing smart films and that is a terrible shame.

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