The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Master

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson
Length 137 mins
Certificate R
Rating **********
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article Trailer.

We first meet Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) on a beach. He’s a sailor, biding his time for WWII to end. He makes his own hooch from rocket fuel drained from torpedoes and longs for something else. On the beach he sculpts a model of a big breasted woman out of the sand and then lewdly horses about with her, to the amusement of his buddies; but there is something desperate and desperately wrong about Freddie.

Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career from portraits of marginalised figures - be they con men, lonely sociopaths, pornographers, driven misanthropes, or a ragbag of all of the above. Phoenix here follows in the footsteps of Daniel Day Lewis in creating with Freddie Quells a physically striking character, whose name gives a hint at the diametric opposite state of his personality: Plainview was not straightforward, and Quells is unable, or refuses, to suppress his nature. With his arched back, his sneer that becomes a pout, his hands-on-hips pose, and his dark eyes that see more than they should, he dominates his scenes as both a locus of potential violence and a simultaneous naked vulnerability. Anderson provides us with little snapshots of Freddie as, following VJ day, he drifts from one job to another, confident that we can follow a through line with out the need for explanation or exposition. Motivation is not to the point. We might not sympathise with him but, as with Plainview when his well strikes, we are riveted to him, bound to him.

However, whereas There Will Be Blood (2007) was largely an extended solo, The Master is a duet. Arriving late to his own party, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, who introduces himself to Freddie as a natural philosopher, writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, but ‘above all, just a man’. He’s also the charismatic leader of The Cause, a pseudo-religious sect which toys with hypnosis and psychoanalysis while making wilder claims about reincarnation and curing leukaemia. Supported by his steely eyed wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd tours the country searching out supporters and evading sceptics and the police. Freddie is an odd recruit. Never fully convinced, he takes on the role of Dodd’s bulldog and, to some degree, his muse, despite the fact he’s actually the antithesis of Dodd’s fantasy of self-improvement and superhuman control.

If assessed as a critique of sects (and especially Scientology), The Master will appear surprisingly sympathetic. Dodd is a fiction writer who wishes his fiction to be taken for truth: he is a bullshit merchant who has been getting high on his own supply. As such he is a sympathetic character, with yearnings that Freddie seems to latch onto and understand. The two acting styles contrast brilliantly - in some scenes almost too brilliantly - Hoffman is all poise and charm, and Phoenix is animalistic energy and pent up rage. The love story between the two men is the core of the film and Anderson plays with it delicately. It is a strangely intimate core to what, in terms of location and look, feels epic. Anderson’s filmic world is beautiful without ever being merely pretty, and the texture, the actual touch, of the period is utterly convincing.

The Master confirms Anderson as one of the most fascinating chroniclers of American life, and one of America’s most completely accomplished film makers. No, I’m not going to make a play on the title of the film, but the fact it is so obvious is, in itself, an admission.

Alternate Take to follow soon…

This review was published on September 17, 2012.

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