Thursday, 8 November 2012
FILM REVIEW: THE MASTER
In post-World War II America, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a shell-shocked serviceman full of anger but with little aptitude for anything but the concoction of some powerful moonshine (the secret ingredient is paint thinner), is in need of direction.
Stowing away one night on a steamboat, he finds possible salvation in Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic man and founder and leader of The Cause, a fledgling religion-of-sorts which believes in past lives and other fanciful notions.
It's no secret that Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film, and his first since 2007's Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, is loosely based on the early years of Scientology. But The Master isn't really about Scientology at all. One suspects that while the beginnings of L. Ron Hubbard's religion may have been the original kernel of Anderson's story, that connection has only been maintained (by the film's publicity department?) as means of creating faux-controversy (non-troversy); to grab the interest of a lazy media that wouldn't necessarily be concerned with the latest complex work by an uncompromising auteur.
There may be more than a few parallels with Scientology and the life of Hubbard, but if you know nothing of that history, you won't spot them in The Master. What the film is mostly concerned with is the relationship between these two men: father and son, teacher and pupil, master and slave, and, more subtly, homoerotic attraction.
That may be one of the reason's Dodd's wife, Peggy (a solid though underused Amy Adams) is wary of this newcomer who has been welcomed so warmly into the fold by her husband, not to mention clandestinely into the bed of her newly-married daughter. Not quite Lady Macbeth, Peggy is The Cause's guard dog, ever-ready to defend her husband and attack any threat to his teachings. And Freddie, wild and unpredictable, and liberal with his supply of moonshine, is a recognisable threat.
But it's not about Peggy, and with all due respect to Adams, a wonderful actress, The Master is not about her. This is Phoenix and Hoffman's show, and the two are a powerhouse duo.
Phoenix is as awkward as a captive bird: hands in-turned on hips, his head cocked to the side and a grimace almost permanently on his face. He also seems to grow thinner as the film progresses (his pants wearing higher and belt drawn tighter) as if Quell's relationship with Dodd were drawing the life out of him even as he believes it to be enriching his soul.
Alternatively, Hoffman is the picture of good health. Robust and ruddy-cheeked, Dodd emanates warmth; the Sun at the centre of a self-made universe. Charismatic, commanding, and domineering when need be, Dodd possesses the necessary characteristics to be a cult leader, and Hoffman has the nous to make him neither a monster or caricature.
But two great performances a great film does not make. As much as one can admire the craft and the vision of Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is not a film one readily embraces or even, dare I say it, loves. Unless of course you worship at the altar of PTA -- and many do. The Master, I suspect, will be one of those films which critics praise and the general public comes away from going 'huh?'.
Disciples of Paul Thomas Anderson won't need persuading, nor are they likely to be swayed in their belief of the film's brilliance. Non-believers, on the other hand, will find much that they admire about, and can take away from The Master but they won't necessarily be converted to the cause.