Paul Thomas Anderson's masterstroke
THE MASTER. (R13) (137 min)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Opening in the very last days of World War II, The Master follows a young and deeply troubled ex-sailor as he falls into the clutches of a charismatic cult leader.
In the next few years the two men play out a destructive but invigorating relationship of manipulation and dependency, generally with a beaker of bathtub hooch and a squadron of young women close to hand.
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman play the two men. Phoenix's Freddie Quell is a damaged and needy man. The war has shattered whatever confidence in himself he may once have had, and now he's drifting through a fog of self-loathing drunkenness. His one great talent is for mixing up booze out of whatever he can find in a garden shed or a photographer's studio. Stumbling aboard a luxury yacht one night, Freddie wakes up at sea, under the fascinated gaze of Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd. Dodd, with his newly acquired taste for paint-thinner based cocktails, takes Freddie on as a personal test case for his new self-help movement; The Cause. Much ensues.
Dodd is based not-too-loosely on L Ron Hubbard. The film's writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is most interested in the Hubbard's mid-1950s to early 1960s period, when his allegedly psychiatric-based Dianetics was in collapse, and he was about to launch his new venture: Scientology. Hubbard's great stroke was to declare Scientology a religion, thus freeing himself - as all religious leaders do - to push whatever barrow of mendacious drivel he wanted, without ever having to provide proof that it worked, while still helping himself to whatever tax breaks were going.
Dodd, like Hubbard, goes on to become immensely rich, while Freddie, who has been our broken door into the story, wrestles and dances with his various demons.
Performed by Phoenix and Hoffman with a very able support cast that includes Laura Dern and Amy Adams, this is a major film. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) is looking more and more like one of the genuine greats with every spin he takes in the chair.
The Master is a terrific achievement, packed with ideas and inquiries. To watch this is to see several hugely talented artists, collaboratively at the height of their powers, produce something extraordinary. There are very few films in any year with the scope, scale, and ambition of this. We should celebrate when they arrive.
The Dominion Post