I first fell in love with Paul Thomas Anderson after watching Magnolia. It would not be an understatement to say that it had a profound effect on my relationship with film; sparking an obsession that continues to this day. Whilst not prolific, the release of a new PTA film is always something to get excited about. With a back catalogue including Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, he is easily one of the most lauded and talented directors working in cinema today.
When deeply disturbed naval veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns to civilian life he finds himself struggling to hold down a job and suppress past demons. A chance meeting with self-professed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher Larry Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sparks an instant connection. Freddie is tantalised by “The Cause” expounded by its charismatic leader Dodd, moving in with his wife (Amy Adams) and family. They both see something in each other which could unlock the key to their lives: Dodd to advance his research; Freddie to find peace.
The Master essentially eschews narrative structure in favour of character study. Anderson’s film is framed by its novelistic style, focussing on the two main protagonists; the story is merely a backdrop. In a recent interview he revealed he initially planned to explain Freddie’s post traumatic stress through a series of wartime flashbacks; but after taking one look at Joaquin Phoenix’s face, decided it wasn’t necessary. Indeed, pain is etched into every pore and sinew of his very being; his voice oscillating between (an often) barely audible mumble and nervous laughter. It’s a staggering piece of character acting which completely avoids the pitfalls of over-dramatisation.
Larry Dodd is a fascinating creation reflecting the prevailing turbulence of post-war America. There have been many comparisons between the character of ‘The Master’ and that of L Ron Hubbard. However, I think a truer reflection would be that of Ayn Rand (whose most famous work The Fountainhead was published in 1943). His character embodies a struggle between exploitation and understanding; we are never quite sure whether he truly believes his own proclamations. It strikes me that he sees Freddie as a vital puzzle; the unravelling of which will lead him to new and vital revelations about the essence of humanity. As the realisation dawns that he cannot “cure” Freddie, he seems to lose faith in his own beliefs. In the end, Dodd seems to be a weary old man, whilst Freddie cannot help seeking to solace through sex and alcohol.
Whist ‘The Cause’ seeks to show the difference between man and beast, it ends up illustrating that we are all driven by animalistic traits. If you go into The Master expecting to leave with answers and resolution you will leave sorely disappointed. As is the case with most great film, you walk out with more questions than answers.
It would be remiss of me not to give a special mention to Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant soundtrack. It always enhances and never detracts from the events taking place on screen; a perfect accompaniment to a fascinating character study. Watch it with an open mind. It is after a treatise on the human condition.
On general release at http://www.showroomworkstation.org.uk/themaster