It must be pretty sweet waking up as Paul Thomas Anderson. Five films in sixteen years, and all have been marked as visionary. A resolute auteur, his sixth movie, The Master, sticks to trends – it’s narratively disparate, lovingly shot on 65MM, stars regular collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, uncompromisingly edited, elaborately scored and, above all, sublime.
Set sometime in stern post-WW2 America (with the biggest signifier of the period being Mark Bridges’ astonishing costume design), Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell. Traumatized by a stint in the navy, he roams across suburban America, in and out of jobs due to his booze-fuelled recklessness. On the run after accidentally poisoning a man with his homemade alcoholic concoctions, he stumbles onboard the boat of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. A man of many words, he travels across the fStates with his trophy wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams) and their family; preaching a new heresy based on mind manipulation and feigned hypnosis. Taking a shine to the young scruff, Dodd welcomes Freddie into the “don’t call it a cult” club, and together they start up a wonderfully complex relationship as man and muse, master and student.
I worry that The Master will be remembered in the history books as ‘that scientology movie’. With vast amounts of press speculation, controversy and involvement by scientology doting Tom Cruise, the hyperbole runs risk of tainting your enjoyment. Regardless of the similarities or that alleged religion’s pertinence, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie is a more personal mini epic about a man suffering from an existential crisis, who finds solace and compassion in the unlikeliest of places. Not only the source of good humour (which PTA’s previous movie There Will Be Blood was distinctly lacking), the central relationship between these two social outcasts opens up to a funny kind of love.
Once again, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood puts in an incredibly offbeat score. It initially reminded me of Jon Brion’s equally cerebral work to my favourite PTA movie, Punch Drunk Love, with the diverse arrangements being both emblematic of the picture, whilst also juxtaposing it. The sonic delights don’t stop there, with PTA proving his musical curiosity in the form of Ella Fitzgerald’s moody rendition of lounge jazz classic ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’ soundtracking hot-headed Freddie trying to keep his cool whilst working as a shopping mall photographer.
Returning as a leading man after his and Casey Affleck’s somewhat misguided I’m Still Here project, Joaquin Phoenix puts in a career-best as the unhinged, yet sweet-natured Freddie. Thin-framed, hunched-backed and cleft lipped, it’s a huge transformation from the beardy man of two years back, but perhaps just as methodical. Phoenix still has that same timidity in his cocksureness, which has always made him a beguiling screen presence. Perhaps his performance gets a little overcooked in places (perhaps right from the start, when he pretends to copulate with a woman made of sand in front of his unimpressed navy men), but it’s still a real “fuck you, I’m back” return to form.
In his best performance since 2008’s Doubt (and perhaps yet another career highlight), Hoffman is enchanting as the megalomaniac Lancaster Dodd. The king of the understated, there are certain moments when Hoffman’s coolness is close to exploding, just like Phoenix. He also gets the best lines too, pontificating in makeshift sermons. Although her matriarchal presence threads the film together, I could always do with a little bit more Amy Adams screen time. As the most dynamic of the power trio, her turn as Dodd’s zealous, childbearing wife, she isn’t fazed by Dodd’s ineffable hubris and faux-charm, unlike doting disciple Laura Dern (expectedly, she’s also fantastic).
Similarly to There Will Be Blood, The Master is a much more heady movie than PTA’s flamboyant earlier work. It’s also his most difficult. Some will woefully consider his intelligent style as pretentious tosh, but, if you ignore the buzz and stop trying to match up the scientology dots, this robust film reveals itself as a bold, captivating and universal love story. It may be a tough and exasperating watch, but certainly a worthwhile one.