Friday, 16 November 2012


Following up There Will Be Blood was always going to prove troublesome for Paul Thomas Anderson in light of his varied career of works tackling broad scopes of numerous eras and genres. After the relatively epic sweep of his epic oil drama, it was a bold move not to dial it down and dilute the style he developed therein. The Master not only picks up many of the same themes but fashions them into something even more discordant and demanding.

A little before the end of the first act, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is awoken by a stranger to be told, “You’re at sea”. The person delivering that message in the literal sense is possibly only partly aware of how apt that phrase is for Freddie is indeed a man adrift. He’s a lost soul scrambling from job to job and misdemeanour to misdemeanour after serving his country in the South Pacific in World War II. Unable to settle down, he’s lead by the nose in search of hedonistic excess and fuelled by any intoxicant he can lay his hands upon – as a spell drinking developing fluid during his job as a department store photographer exemplifies.

It’s when his path converges with that of a nascent spiritual organisation led by the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that the gears of a direct plot begin their slow grind into the position they’ll occupy for much of the film. This is not a film which concerns itself with grandiose character arcs; more concerned as it with the eventual power play between the antagonist and protagonist.

As Dodd attempts to diagnose and ‘fix’ Freddie through the processing stages of his religion there’s a curious dynamic at play. Warm with an undercurrent of genial malice, Dodd seems enamoured of his new ward in spite of his “scoundrel” tendencies and it’s the formation of a symbiotic relationship that forms the backbone of the film. The strength of it lies in the subtly shifting balance of power to the point where you’re never quite sure who's benefitting more from Freddie’s betterment. Is his turnaround the redemptive makeover an audience is presumed to root for, or vindication of a possibly on-the-hoof doctrine?

Powerful scenes raise questions about this fledgling religion but the mooted Scientology skewering is merely a jumping off point for an examination of the relationship between these two outwardly different, but similarly in turmoil, men. It’s in these intricacies that the joy of the film lies. There’s no such thing as an easy answer or an easy question.

In discussing humanity’s need to always have something to follow it doesn’t shy from tackling the theme of religion head on but it does so not from an embittered standpoint, but from one of genuine inquisitional interest and a desire to probe human nature. It’s neatly summed up in typically impressive form by Dodd, who calmly goads: “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know for you would be the first in the history of the world.”

There is a real sense of development in the characters throughout the film and, evidently, long before shooting started. They feel lived-in and there is the sense that both Hoffman and Phoenix know them inside and out. It’s tempting to think that Phoenix’s entire experience with I’m Still Here was a tentative fumbling towards his petulant and infuriating character here. It’s certainly an astounding performance that will define his career from now on. The interplay between the two leads sparkles with latent energy and in some respects their relationship has more in common with Apatowian bromance than it does with even previous Anderson films.

While on screen for little of the film’s engorged 144 minute running time, Amy Adams' powerful performance as Dodd’s wife is impactful in every scene and is potentially key to unlocking the relationship between the men. She’s quietly dazzling and worlds removed from her stock in trade sweetness we’ve grown accustomed to.

It’s certainly a handsome production. The captivating cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr captures an essence of the 1950s period aesthetic and punctuates the film with the most stunning shots of azure seas. Coupled with an avant-garde use of editing techniques and dissonant score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, it’s as much of a joy visually as is it for those who enjoy grappling with the complexities of a story which thrives on individual scenes as much as it does their part in a whole.

Careful balance is integral and it importantly doesn’t outstay its welcome. As a portrait of Phoenix’s character it exudes a sense of otherness in every frame. He never quite looks part of this world and there’s an overpowering sense of being lost in his surroundings. The fact you’re unlikely to grow fond of him doesn’t make that any less touching and it’s the quiet warmth afforded his character that makes this so extraordinary and devastating. Some men just can’t be tamed.

While all this might sound well beyond po-faced and deep into the realms of drudgery, there’s room within for exploration of a sweeter nature with a probing of potential tenderness in Quell’s past, but even that isn’t quite clear cut in a narrative sense. Humour flares in unexpected places (particularly an exemplary use of a well-timed cussword) and ensures that the dynamics of a scene are liable to uproot you at any moment.

It’s a rich, heady mix which simultaneously invigorates and numbs the senses like a paint thinner cocktail. It constantly requires more of its audience and the more you devote to it and invest in the world and the minutiae, the more you’re likely to reap from it. It doesn't have the immediacy of There Will Be Blood or the instantly accessible qualities of Boogie Nights or Magnolia but it lights up the screen and it’s destined to leave you stewing afterwards. Whether your reaction to that is positive or negative, it’s invigorating and there won’t be any denying that impact was achieved.