After a five year hiatus (following 2007’s oily Oscar winner There Will Be Blood), idolised American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson returns this year with The Master (2012), a truly miraculous anachronism that consistently appears to defy both time and conventional cinematic logic. A supremely orchestrated, Kane-like odyssey, Anderson’s latest is remarkable for both its grandiose scale (writ large on-screen following a limited 70mm West End run) and paradoxical introversion, focused as it is on the psychological journey of its protagonist, discharged naval serviceman Freddie Quell (a resurgent Joaquin Phoenix).
Having survived the horror – and enforced sexual abstinence – of the Second World War’s Pacific Theatre, Quell is unceremoniously dumped into the vast expanses of post-war America. Drifting drunkenly from one short-lived employment opportunity to the next, Quell smuggles his way aboard the glistening vessel of a one Lancaster Dodd (a never-better Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a progressive movement known only as ‘The Cause’. A self-proclaimed “writer, doctor and nuclear physicist”, the magnanimous Dodd takes the dishevelled Quell under his wing, hoping to save his fellow man whilst at the same time, along with devoted wife Peggy (Amy Adams), fighting the good fight against defamation and ridicule.
The shadow of Scientology looms large over The Master, yet this is arguably far more due to advanced speculation and pre-release controversy rather than the film’s actual core subject matter. At its heart, Anderson’s mesmeric 1940s/50s period piece (once again complemented by yet another knock-out Jonny Greenwood score) is both a perfectly drawn depiction of a once-great superpower helplessly sliding into a nationwide existential slump, and a complex, multi-layered study of the intoxicating power of belief systems and warped familial hierarchies. Quell free falls out of service to Uncle Sam into the welcoming arms of Father Dodd, a charismatic patriarch who beguiles those around him with compelling tales of humanity’s great struggle against invisible, intangible physiological oppression.
Phoenix perfectly encapsulates the pent-up angst and near-uncontrollable rage of a generation lost at sea – his contorted, Popeye-esque Quell perpetually searching for contentment and solace in a world of false promises and shifting sand maidens. Phoenix’s pure physical energy, which lies suppressed for significant stretches, is utilised to magnificent effect by Anderson – perhaps most notably in an incarceration scene, where the hand-tied ex-seaman obliterates a prison cell through sheer, bloody-minded force. The collected ego to Quell’s raging id, Hoffman arguably steals the show as the titular master orator, commanding his followers’ respect and undivided attention with each and every roll of his tongue.
Much like the granulated sirens that taunt Quell’s unquenchable libido, for some, Anderson’s The Master may prove to be a largely indecipherable pipe dream, a film so vast in its scope and ambition as to sideline plausibility and narrative coherency. Indeed, several watches may well be necessary to truly grasp the complexity and pure auteurial majesty inherent within each and every sidewards glance, concealed tick and loaded line of dialogue. Yet here remains an American film that rewards repeat viewing, heartily encourages ambiguity over linearity and confronts the contemporary through a near-perfect evocation of the past. The triumphant Master returns.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is released in UK cinemas nationwide on 16 November, 2012.