Review: The Master (TIFF 2012)
PLOT: A WW2 veteran, turned aimless drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) falls under the sway of the charismatic head of a new religion.
REVIEW: The oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson has, thus far, had two distinctly different styles, with the first part of his career (HARD EIGHT, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and MAGNOLIA) being fast-paced, sprawling, and hard edged in the vein of seventies cinema. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE marked a divide in his technique, and THE MASTER is very much in the style of THERE WILL BE BLOOD- in that it's yet another period American epic, with a tightly honed focus on two characters.
There are many similarities between Daniel Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, as there are between Paul Dano's Eli and Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell. Replace oil with religion, and it's striking at how closely they parallel each other- with the main difference being that unlike Plainview and Eli, Dodd and Quell work together, and seem to like each other.
THE MASTER has been controversial, as everyone assumes that Anderson's film is a thinly veiled critique of Scientology, and while there is no doubt many similarities between Dodd's religion, called “The Cause” and the early days of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, that's far from all this is. Whatever “The Cause” is, and whether or not it's good or bad is left up to the audience. Anderson is instead (I presume) mostly concerned with the relationship between Dodd and Quell, and everything else is secondary.
Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenal as Quell, playing him as an aimless lay-about, actually not that far-removed from the enigmatic figure he personified in his ill-fated I'M STILL HERE days. It's a given that THE MASTER will allow Phoenix to pick up his career right where he left off with WALK THE LINE. Quell, who mostly makes his living peddling moonshine after being sacked from his post-Navy job as a department store photographer, has the look of a man with absolutely no control over his own emotions and actions.
It's this utter lack of self-control that seems to appeal to Dodd, who sees Quell as a mischievous and amusing child (calling him a “naughty boy”) but one he seems to care about in his own way- even going so far as to beg the police not to hurt him when he's arrested after an outburst. Dodd is played by Hoffman with an sense of grandiosity that's reminiscent of Orson Welles. As such, Dodd does not come off as creepy, or even sinister, but rather charismatic and silver-tongued. Unlike the hair-trigger Quell, Dodd only loses his cool once- when challenged by a party guest (with Hoffman memorably calling him a “pig fuck”). The contrasting styles of their performances are particularly evident during the three big set-pieces, the first being the initial interview, where Dodd uses repetition to break down Quell's reserve, the second- where they're placed in side-by-side jail cells (with Quell tearing his to shreds, while being ridiculed by the passive Dodd), and finally, the climax.
The rest of the cast naturally takes a back-seat to Phoenix and Hoffman, although Amy Adams brings a surprising acidity to her normally warm screen presence, while Laura Dern shows up for a smallish role as a “Cause” devotee memorably taken down a few pegs by Hoffman later in the film. While I must admit that part of me prefers Anderson's earlier work to his new style, it can't be argued that THE MASTER isn't an astonishingly well-crafted piece of work, and a triumph. Some will complain that it's a tad slow (or rather- deliberately paced), but actually, it's Anderson's tightest, shortest film since PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (only 130 minutes this time out). Visually it's a feast, especially if seen on 70MM, as it was shown at TIFF, with the blues of the sea, and the panoramic vistas of the desert being especially striking. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who was robbed of the Oscar he deserved for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, contributes another great score that hopefully will get some recognition.
It's a virtual certainty that THE MASTER will be one of the big players in this year's Oscar race, and I found it to be utterly absorbing and thought-provoking- but, like many films that have played this year's TIFF, probably needing to be seen twice (or more) to be fully appreciated. Anyone who's serious about film as art needs to see this, with Anderson once again proving to be a master of his craft.