There are two Paul Andersons currently operating in Hollywood, and they seem to be almost polar opposites. Paul W.S. Anderson is seemingly the go-to guy for formulaic trash with no directorial imprint “ movies that look like they could have been directed by anyone. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, by contrast, have his personality stamped all over them “ from scene one you know The Master is a P T Anderson film, and couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
Here, Anderson, never shy of major themes, has turned his attention to subject of belief, and the master of the title refers to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the leader of a group / new religion known as The Cause. Despite repeated denials from director and cast, there are too many similarities between The Cause and Scientology to believe that the fictional group is not in some ways based on that controversial religion, and that Dodd is intended as an L. Ron Hubbard figure.
But The Master is not just Dodd’s story. The main protagonist is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Quell has left the Navy after World War Two, and it’s clear that he’s suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not helping is Quell’s skill at creating moonshine from practically anything, which he consumes in unhealthy quantities. Quell is an awesome creation by Phoenix, a surly, unnerving presence with a humourless laugh that tends to precede trouble. He’s a real loose canon, a mass of half-formed desires who is genuinely unpredictable. One early scene has him on the beach with his navy buddies “ like a twisted scene from South Pacific – they create a naked woman out of sand. They laugh as he simulates sex with it, but the laughter dies as he takes the mime much too far.
Unable to hold down a job, Quell stumbles from place to place, until evading trouble again, he hides on board Dodd’s ostentatious boat. Fortunately for him, Dodd tries and develops a fondness for his homemade booze and takes Quell under his wing “ perhaps seeing something of himself in Quell, despite their apparent differences. Dodd is a confident, imposing figure. But after all both men’s genius lies in creating something people find intoxicating from bits and pieces they find lying around. Dodd however, creates a belief system as opposed to Quell’s alcohol. Quell finds himself intrigued by the cause and their methods, while Dodd sees him as a potential protÃ©gÃ©, and so Quell travels with him and his entourage around America, trying to spread the word.
The Master is in part intended as a snapshot of America in the fifties and as an exploration of the atmosphere that allowed for so many of these new religions at the time. However, it’s much stronger as a character study of Quell and Dodd and their intense relationship and mutual bond, always with his enigmatic wife (Amy Adams) a fascinating presence in the background. This is where the film excels “ it’s larger points and themes being somewhat oblique.
It’s a film that has much to recommend it “ some fantastic cinematography and outstanding performances not the least of them. There’s also the all too unfamiliar feeling that you are in the hands of a director who knows exactly what he wants to do with his film. However, in the way in which successful authors’ books tend to get longer as they become less deferential to their editors, one wonders if the same thing is happening to Anderson. The film weighs in at 144 minutes, and while there’s something to admire in most scenes, it does feel a little saggy in the second act. Overall it does feel a little more like a film to admire than it is a film to truly enjoy.