Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. U.S. 2012.

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I learned from David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film that the late actor River Phoenix grew up in the Children of God cult, and presumably his brother Joachin did also.  Which possibly made him an appropriate choice to play the ex-marine who, after WWII, gets drawn into a cult known as The Cause, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master, his first since the 2007 epic There Will Be Blood.

Anderson seems to have established himself, probably justifiably, as the finest of his generation of American directors (though for my money he has yet to come anywhere near rivalling Malick or Scorsese).  Like his previous film, with its electrifying performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, The Master is essentially about a clash of personalities between two men, in a kind of father-son relationship.  Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a damaged alcoholic who takes a series of jobs after leaving the navy, until in 1950 (dates are very specific in this film) he lands up on a boat heading for New York and owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who immediately seeks to draw Quell into his cult.  Much has been made by commentators of the fact that The Cause’s teachings are similar to those of Scientology, and that Dodd seems to be based on L. Ron Hubbard.  Anderson has denied this in interviews, though I suspect that the similarity bears comparison with that of Charles Foster Kane to Randolph Hearst in Orson Welles’ masterpiece.

The two men exert a mutual fascination, and Quell seems keen to embrace the movement.  At a meeting where Dodd and his teachings are challenged by a sceptic, Quell enthusiastically backs the Master’s intemperate put-down of the intruder, going so far as to violently attack the man that night.  Dodd himself is hardly the paragon of straight-laced virtue one might expect, with a keenness for parties, alcohol, and fast motor-bikes.  The film later moves to the Arizona city of Phoenix (is the link with the actor’s name deliberate?) and then to England, where there is a denouement of sorts.

Some have commented on the lack of any particular plot in this film, and Anderson, replying to an interviewer’s suggestion that he seemed to have made it up as he went along, replied in effect “of course, don’t we all”?  To my mind, after a single viewing (and this is probably one of those films crying out to be seen at least twice) there are two main themes: the fascinating clash of personality between the outwardly self-confident Dodd and the unstable hyperactive Quell, and the state of America mid-century, when cults of various kinds were two-a-penny.

The acting is uniformly superb.  Hoffman, regarded by some as the finest screen actor around today, is actually outshone by Phoenix, who twists his body and face into a kind of anguish throughout the film.  His temperament is illustrated in a subjective hallucinatory scene where, at a party, he sees all the women (but not the men) naked.  Mention must also be made of Amy Adams, brilliantly convincing as Dodd’s wife, who seems even more committed to The Cause as does Dodd himself.  The striking score is by Jonny Greenwood, who also worked on There Will Be Blood.

The Master is undoubtedly an important film, about which much will be written.  Whether it will establish itself as a masterpiece remains to be seen.  Just one quibble about the UK certification: the BBFC has given it a 15 rating, but I think it merits an 18 owing to a couple of fairly explicit sex scenes.

Alan Pavelin

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