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Film review: The Master

The Master. Picture: PA

The Master. Picture: PA

  • by ALISTAIR HARKNESS
 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sort-of satire on Scientology misses the mark, with opaque, meaningless scenes passing for profundity

The Master (15)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons
Star rating: * * *

HAVING been hot-housed for two weeks on a single screen in London, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since There Will Blood finally makes to the “regions” with superlatives hanging off it like prize tomatoes. Too bad that the film lands with a bit of splat.

Beneath all the five-star blurbs and “masterpiece” poster quotes, The Master turns out to be a bit of a sprawling, repetitive mess, a film that hints at greatness to be sure, but fails to come together in any coherent way – or at least in any way that inspires confidence in Anderson’s actual abilities as a storyteller as opposed to his undeniable filmmaking prowess.

Individual sequences, for instance, pulsate with startling strangeness, crazed energy and breathtaking beauty, but collectively add up to very little as Anderson lays out in elliptical fashion his wannabe epic tale of post-Second World War America and the psychic schism that erupted as the old certainties were swept away by the dawning of the nuclear age.

This tale is played out via the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a psychologically damaged sailor, demobbed from duty in the South Pacific and cast adrift in an America that’s as ill-equipped to comprehend the unspecified trauma he’s endured and as he is to deal with it. The film is at its most striking in setting this up, with Anderson drip-feeding information in intriguing ways and Phoenix going all out to create a character almost as wilfully weird as There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview.

Masturbating into the sea, fornicating with a woman made of sand and brewing mind-blowing hooch from rocket fuel, he’s almost all id – primal, libidinous and quite possibly deranged – and Phoenix plays him as such. Contorting his body into strange shapes until he seems permanently hunched over, he’s like a demented cross between Popeye and Marlon Brando. By the time we see him back in the real world he seems to have aged 20 years and his wiry, borderline freakshow appearance stands in stark contrast to the perfect, newly aspirational families he spends his days photographing in a fancy department store.

The message is clear: he doesn’t belong and when his job comes to a premature end – after a bizarre altercation with a customer – Anderson accentuates Freddie’s sense of isolation by having him embark on a brief spell as a farmhand that ends in tragedy. Cast out from the old America as well as the new, it’s at this point he stumbles across The Cause, a nascent, Scientology-esque cult that promises enlightenment by taming and controlling primal instincts via memory recovery and lot of hooey involving a belief in the existence of previous intergalactic selves dating back trillions of years.

The formulator of this garbage is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A showy charlatan who declares himself to be a writer, philosopher, nuclear physicist and a doctor, in addition to “being above all a man”, Hoffman plays him as a cross between L Ron Hubbard and that master of showbusiness fakery Orson Welles, ensuring he’s as intoxicating Quell’s moonshine.

Alas it’s here that Anderson starts to lose his grip. The relationship between Quell and Dodd – the latter trying to break him down psychologically, the former too addled to fully submit to his subservient role – gets lost amidst a miasma of meaningless scenes that edge the film into ever more opaque territory, Anderson proving unable to make his ideas chime with the story at hand. Big thematic ideas about the nostalgia and the relationship between past, present and future in American life feel like they’ve been cribbed from The Great Gatsby and shoehorned into unsatisfactory subplots. Elsewhere it feels as if Anderson is simply regurgitating tropes and tricks from his previous work – most obviously Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood – in an effort to convince us that the results are similarly successful and profound. But they’re not. Indeed, the fact that The Master often plays like a wily and somewhat smug piece of meta filmmaking – a self-reflexive comment on cult of the director and the faith fans place in them to provide what they thing they want from cinema – either displays great cynicism or a staggering lack of self-awareness. Either way, The Master is hard to buy into.

 

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