After the black slime has settled on the wrecked hopes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) has risen to its operatic zenith, the most anticipated film for many cinephiles will still be Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012). In the space of a relatively short career, Anderson has established his position as a vital American filmmaker of compelling dramas, which have become increasingly assured in their grip and increasingly ambitious in their grasp.
Of The Master, we have already seen a very odd but typically Anderson-like teaser trailer and poster, disconcerting in its unattractiveness. However, this full trailer makes good on these initial promises. Joaquin Phoenix plays protagonist Freddie Sutton, who we first see in an overhead shot passed out on the observation post of a Naval warship, whilst his crew mates throw stuff at him from below. Following the Second World War, Sutton is obviously finding it difficult to readjust to civilian life, despite a voiceover that seems to be at once sympathetic and overly optimistic: “…get some land, raise some chickens”.
Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, by his own description: “A writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a natural philosopher, but above all a man just like you”. The self-mythologising master exerts a hold on Freddie as he recruits him in what looks like a new religion, spurred on by Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife. Of course, The Master has nothing to do with the founding of Scientology and the personality of L. Ron Hubbard, in the same way that David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) had absolutely nothing but a passing resemblance to the creation of Facebook and the doings of its creator, Mark Zuckerberg.
Anderson is a subtle and complex director, comfortable with nuance and making the unpalatable, at the very least, understandable. For example, in Boogie Nights (1997) the porn-making crew were like a family and Daniel Plainview in the towering There Will Be Blood (2007), even at his most monstrous, was a human being. Of course, the latter had much to do with Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar-winning central performance, but again Anderson has a habit of surrounding himself with the best actors currently employed in filmmaking and bringing out of them amazing performance. Hoffman looks like he has a plum of a part in the guru Lancaster, and Phoenix could well be looking to put his career back on track after the entertaining lunacy documented in I’m Still Here (2010).
With stand-out performances on view in these brief glimpses, along with Anderson’s striking visual style, a compelling storyline and a wonderful use of music (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood returns on soundtrack duty), Anderson’s new film is a very likely contender for either the Venice or Toronto film festivals. It will certainly have a ready-made audience for those interested in the possibility of dramatic cinema and perhaps is a little fatigued by superheroes and xenomorphs.
The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.