A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
The first time I saw ‘The Master’ was on its release at the cinema back in November 2012, and I remember being disappointed by it then. Three years later, after watching the rest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, it feels like an appropriate time to rewatch to see if my opinion has changed. The short answer is that I feel just as perplexed by ‘The Master’ as I was on first viewing, although my appreciation for the film’s strongest elements continues to grow further. ‘The Master’ is a film led by two stunning performances from Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but badly let down by its storytelling. The film is superbly acted and masterfully constructed, but ultimately I feel it’s a film lacking in direction and I don’t think it’s ever clear about what it wants to be. It’s got a great subject matter, terrific acting and its well put together, but I don’t think it truly connects and it remains disappointing for me. A second viewing has failed to unlock the film’s secrets, for me at least.
The film begins by introducing us to Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a US marine struggling to adjust to post-war life after World War II. Quell is a lost soul looking for a father figure, and he stumbles from job to job before he gets drunk and wakes up on a boat belonging to a follower of a philosophical movement known as ‘The Cause’. This introduces Quell to the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an impressive figure who seems to draw all kinds of people in by his presence alone. The similarities between Lancaster Dodd and ‘The Cause’ draws obvious comparisons to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, with that particular religion a clear influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s scripting.
One of the earliest scenes between Quell and Dodd in the film is a hint at what ‘The Master’ is at its best, when Dodd takes Quell through his processing. Over a table in a cabin, Dodd fires questions repeatedly at Quell as part of his ‘processing’, delving into his sex life, his family history, and gaining answers that serve to strengthen the relationship between the two men rather than damage it. To be honest, the film is worth seeing for that scene alone, which is a lesson in acting and creating a scene. There are many other sequences that truly shine, such as a thrilling exchange between a sceptical man (Christopher Evan Welch) at a dinner party in New York and Dodd, where Welch’s character questions Dodd’s methods and statements. These scenes showcase what ‘The Master’ is at its strongest – a truly engrossing, mesmerising examination of cult through some of the highest calibre acting performances you’re likely to see. The overall product struggles to connect though, with these mesmerising individual scenes feeling isolated rather than part of a bigger story.
As pure immersive cinema, ‘The Master’ is difficult to fault. It’s another example that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the finest in the business at crafting a movie, from the performances to the editing to the wonderfully discordant score from Jonny Greenwood (who also scored ‘There Will Be Blood’). The problem with ‘The Master’ for me is in the scripting, and I never feel fully compelled by the storytelling, which always feels like it’s a step behind the other elements.
‘The Master’ concludes our Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective (we reviewed ‘Inherent Vice’ at the time of its release in January). We’ll be taking a break for 2/3 weeks from these retrospectives and will let you know shortly about our next project. Thanks for reading!
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons, Kevin J. O’Connor and Christopher Evan Welch