“Phoenix and Hoffman deliver quite simply unbelievable performances”.
There’s something so timely and fitting with every project that director Paul Thomas Anderson takes up in relation to the time and place we are in the world. You look at Boogie Nights about the a man’s experiences in the inner workings of the porn industry, at a time when audiences taboos were made out in the open. Or even There Will Be Blood about a businessman’s dealing with politics and religion at the height of his wealth in his oil drilling business, at a time when our armed forces were deep in war in a foreign country where those issues are still raw today. In the case of The Master therefore, it’s timely that a tale of false religion and it’s impact has come to light at a time when people’s beliefs and motives are questioned with advances in science and modern day philosophy.
Set in the years following the second World War, Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) attempts to adapt to life after his navy days, until he encounters Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose none other than ‘The Master’, hailing himself as the answer to all things. A drifted and troubled soul, Freddie follows the guidance and teachings of his master and followers, only until outside forces begin to interfere and question whether his new direction in life is all just a false scam.
Before any themes even begin to be addressed, it must be said that both Phoenix and Hoffman deliver quite simply unbelievable performances. Phoenix gives a richness of loss, a complete down and out man withered at the effects of time and experience, constantly questioning with himself at his new ideas and practices. Phoenix’s unease and sexual frustration take him down a road of almost believing anyone higher in society than him would cure his traumas and problems, even using violence to solve the doubters and hitting home the sense of being a changed but ultimately manufactured man, resulting in his own fractured mental health making difficult choices. “It’s either a billion years with us, or never” quips Peggy, Lancaster’s squeeze, played terrifically by Amy Adams, standing by his man at all costs, becoming the pinnacle of abandoning reason and being the forefront of the films misogynistic factor.
But for me, without a doubt, Hoffman’s portrayal of Lancaster Dodd is extraordinary. The perfect con-man, conducting his orchestra of loved ones with his disturbing off-kilter techniques and convincingly providing his way, his beliefs, his vision of the true way of life through argument and arrest, Hoffman provides the looks and persona’s that make him the talisman for leading anyone, that comes in his way, to the promised land. Not letting up on any aspect of his works, driving home a sense that he’s right and the rest of the world his wrong, describing in detail how spreading his given knowledge is like catching a dragon on a leash and an unease in the consequences of double crossing such an “intelligent driven” mind.
Anderson’s direction is, as ever, graceful and poignant. Providing a visual mindset for Freddie throughout, whether it be the calm colours and senses of his surroundings at the height of his initial freedom from war, to the barred cell of prison trapping him like an innocent animal as he receives a barrage of supposed advice. Anderson’s skill is clear to see, and continuing his fantastic approach of almost fixing a camera to anything and letting the scene, and more importantly, it’s drama play out.
It goes without saying that you can read this as an allegorical take on cults and very explicitly mirrors the workings and influence of L. Ron Hubbard, considered the founder of the church of Scientology in the 1950’s. Whether it was Anderson’s intention to showcase how absurd or just plain stupid the start or workings of radical religious beliefs start can be read many ways. I think the film focuses more on the relationship between it’s two central characters, of how someone can be caught up in the whole circus of radical religion, instead of it’s stance on the subject. Don’t let that put you off though, Anderson himself has said “we’re low on story and high on character” here in his overall take on the film, but I believe there is enough in there to make you question your attitudes, your thoughts on how cults operate, and how religion influences, and how once that strong hold of religion is on you, it’s very hard to let go.
I agree and understand why some viewers may come out of it slightly down on the fact that the subject matter could have hit home more, and missed the opportunity that it could of addressed to the whole world the complete insane notion that a figure with that much influence can indeed be caught out. But for me, I believe it did enough. I believe there are certain confrontations and plot threads that will make the most hardened atheist, and most hardened believer to that matter, angry in agreement of the story. It’s certainly true that whatever beliefs you take to it, will in turn decide your overall view on the film, but it would very difficult to come out of it and not think important issues weren’t addressed.
Provided those issues were the overriding aspect you get from it. We do get practices and rituals from characters that occur out of the blue, which does ring uncomfortable at certain times. Themes of misogyny and diplomacy are showcased as women are made to serve the men of the cause in any way shape or form, and that women are only objects, used for sex and dismissed when providing their own experiences of what the religious enlightenment have done for them. It must be said though that the last act of the movie does point the moral compass back in the right direction and so it should, any sub themes that dismiss people for their gender or age, are indeed laid to rest. One of the most satisfying experiences would be of Jonny Greenwood‘s score. Nothing short of mesmerising, Greenwood’s score pulsates from the get go and perfectly ploughs that notion of inescapable religion with it’s rhythmic guitar flicking and beautiful simplicity.
It’s a fantastic experience, even though I still feel There Will Be Blood is the pinnacle of Anderson’s best work, The Master doesn’t shy away from touching on it’s themes and does enough to make you feel satisfied important aspects where addressed. But in the end, it’s that central relationship that is the real triumph of the film, and ultimately, most rewarding.