Film-maker Paul Thomas Anderson’s penchant for protagonists either seeking (or having foisted upon them) redemption can be traced through Mark Wahlberg’s coerced innocent, Dirk Diggler, in Boogie Nights, (a superb) Tom Cruise’s hate-filled misogynist, Frank T J Mackey, in Magnolia and Daniel Day-Lewis’ unswerving megalomaniac, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. For 2012’s The Master, Anderson turns his attention to the plight of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and the nature of 'cultism’ (specifically scientology), thereby setting up an exploration of the themes of powerplay and coercion in post-WW2 1950s USA and whilst the film (for me, at least) does not quite match up to its pre-release hype (or, indeed, PTA at his absolute best) it still has its moments, particularly in terms of its relatively original subject matter, its look and feel (there are a number of brilliantly cinematic – trademark PTA, if you like – set-pieces), plus some outstanding acting turns. Indeed, with a more focused narrative and perhaps the slimming down of some of the film’s ‘excess fat’ (it runs to around 140 minutes) The Master might just have proved to be the masterpiece it was frequently trailed as.
At the heart of the film is the mercurial ('father-son’) relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s patriarchal, self-righteous cult-leader of ‘The Cause’, Lancaster Dodd, and Joaquin Phoenix’s volatile, sex-obsessed, ex-navy Ordinary Joe, Freddie. Anderson sets up Dodd’s 'extended family’ nicely, with the typically impressive (and, of course, much missed) Seymour Hoffman exuding a calming and magnetic presence over all and sundry (with the notable exception of Christopher Evan Welch’s interloper and sceptic, John More, in one of the film’s standout scenes). Elsewhere, Amy Adams, in particular, also impresses as Dodd’s dutiful wife and 'uncompromising believer’, Peggy. You have to dig quite deep to get to much in the way of empathy of Anderson’s characters here – to some extent a natural consequence of the film’s central, essentially delusional and coercive, premise – but, look closely and, particularly in relation to Phoenix’s oddball, controversial (but brilliant) characterisation and you can find it (cf. the scenes of Freddie with his childhood sweetheart), hidden beneath the surface frustrations (which reveal themselves, in part, here via Freddie and Dodd’s sexual tendencies).
Narrative-wise, the film is probably a little too episodic and meandering. That said, Anderson, who has one of current cinema’s most acute visual senses (and is ably assisted here by cinematographer Mihai Malaimaire Jr.), punctuates the apparent 'lack of action’ with some superb, often exhilarating set-pieces – such as More’s intervention, Dodd’s arrest sequence, Freddie’s desert motorbike and Freddie’s 'return home’. Even in the film’s more sedate moments, we are left in no doubt that Anderson has meticulously crafted every shot. The film’s core theme of psychological, pseudo-scientific (scientology-based) theory is repeatedly evoked, first via Freddie’s navy interviews and thence via the ‘analysis’ he undergoes with members of Dodd’s The Cause. These extended sequences during the film’s third quarter are, for me, too 'theoretical’ and thus are probably the film’s weakest sequences. Throughout, however, Jonny Greenwood’s sparse, alternately ‘classical’ and idiosyncratic score pretty much fits the film’s mood perfectly.
Not an unqualified success, therefore, but a film of laudable, significant ambition, at least partially realised by one of the world’s top film-makers. The other thing to note about The Master is that it is a film whose level of engagement (in contrast to the more 'immediate’ Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) I have found increases with each viewing.