I'd rather not grade this, though I'll have to, and shall do so once I've written the review. 'The Master' is long at around two and a half hours. but it held my attention throughout. Undeniably the camerawork, the acting, the period feel (it is set in 1950) and the direction are of the first quality, with an amazing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, even if some of his dialogue is so mangled that it is hard to make out - but that fits the damaged character he plays. He is Freddie Quell, a WW2 vet. who suffers from post-traumatic stress and has consumed so much hooch, which he brews himself from spirits, paint thinner, the liquid contents of various machines and goodness knows what else, that it is surprising that he is still alive. Stowing away on a pleasure boat, he meets Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic, megalomaniac leader of a cult supported by wealthy Americans, and they form an immediate and bizarre attraction for each other. Quell becomes an almost indispensable challenge/talisman for Dodd and most of the film centres on their relationship and their interaction with the supporters of the cult, which include Dodd's pregnant wife (Amy Adams, very good), son, daughter and son-in-law. Quell is clearly dangerous and unpredictable but Dodd will not give him up, despite the opposition of his family. And so the film continues, with visits to the homes of the wealthy, what looks like the Bonneville salt flats, prison cells, a dusty, rocky, sun-baked location where Dodd's unpublished work is buried in a wooden box and finally England, to which Dodd repairs with his followers (the States having become too hot for him?). It ends with Quell lying on a beach beside a crude sand model of a naked woman, which echoes his animal fixation with women and sex with which the film opened.
It is a film that makes you think, and perhaps it should be taken on a slightly surreal level - maybe we are meant to accept, not to ask questions. Nonetheless, the questions won't go away. Why does Dodd, who preys on the wealthy and the socially advantaged, risk all by associating himself with Quell, a leering drunkard, a thief, a violent man whose violence cannot be controlled? Dodd is a clever manipulator ; it seems strange that he should take such a gamble. Two possible answers - that Quell is a challenge and Dodd wants to prove his power by 'curing' him, or that there is a homoerotic charge on his side, do not seem plausible on the evidence of the film. Quell continues to drink heavily - dangerously - throughout his time with Dodd and the cult, but his craving for sex, which is just as powerful, appears to be put to one side, even though Dodd's daughter shows her willingness at one point and in one bizarre scene the women of the cult appear naked as Dodd sings an alarming version of 'We'll go no more a-roving'. Slurring his words, leering, walking in a curiously cramped way, his shoulders rounded (Phoenix maintains this very well throughout the film) he is absolutely not attractive, and in his hypocrisy and ability to manipulate the willingly vulnerable, neither is Dodd ; so I have some sympathy with those who have said that the two main characters are so unappealing that the film dies with them. But no, it was absorbing for me, and the time did not drag. But if empathy and involvement are important for a film like this which appears to be telling a realistic story, on that level, for me, it fell some way short. So the grading? 5 for the skill of the making, 2 for the power of the story and a rather puzzled 3 for the fact that, despite that, the film commanded attention. So it's 3 and a third - to the nearest whole number, 3 ; an unsatisfactory compromise.