It’s testament to Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Magnolia, There Will be Blood) skills as a director, and those of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman as actors, that The Master is a compelling watch throughout its 144 minutes. I usually think if you can’t show everything in two hours, there’s an editor unnecessarily out of work. This is a character piece, too, so once it’s been established that Freddie Quell (Phoenix), an alcoholic war veteran suffering post-traumatic stress and with a sexual obsession, has fallen under the guidance of Lancaster Dodd, a new age mystic who runs a pseudo religious movement called ‘The Cause’, the story itself isn’t moved on a great deal. What makes it so intriguing is that both Quell and Dodd, servant and master, are such hauntingly erratic characters.
The film seems based, in part, on the development of the Scientology movement, but it’s not a black and white condemnation of cults. Only rarely does Lancaster come across as unhinged, and his method of ‘processing’ – haphazard question and answer sessions, mainly with Quell, occasionally under hypnosis – are strange but never malicious. Indeed, Lancaster likes Quell, a man we never truly get to know despite dark revelations about his past, and who seems both self-possessed and completely cut adrift. Phoenix is fantastic in this role of troubled loner, child-like yet menacing, complimented superbly by Hoffman’s slightly seedy, paternalistic assurance.
The momentum of the film is maintained by a series of set-pieces, each stylishly surreal, in which Lancaster conducts his ‘processing’. The drama is confined, tense and claustrophobic, diluted by Lancaster’s apparent geniality throughout. But there are also disturbing scenes that hint at Lancaster’s wider control of his followers, though like Anderson’s previous work, it’s a film that is distinctly fuzzy around the edges. And it’s that transient quality that keeps you engaged. Certain scenes are so perfectly shot that their colours appear to assume an almost hyper-reality. And whilst Lancaster and ‘The Cause’ appear to live in a gentrified bubble, one can’t help but sense darker rhythms below the surface, even if they are never brought directly into the light.
Some critics have found this film baffling and self-indulgent, but that may be a reaction to the acclaim Anderson received for There Will be Blood. Granted, he seemed to have run out of ideas when it came to an ending, but the overall tone means it just about gets away with it. Overall this is an engrossing, disturbing film with several performances that are bound to be rewarded on Oscar night – thoroughly recommended.