After a five-year hiatus, Paul Thomas Anderson follows up his Oscar-winning There Will be Blood (2007) with The Master (2012), an overly complex tale which is nonetheless magnificently acted and shot. The film begins and ends with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran who is having difficulty adjusting to life after war. Mentally and emotionally disturbed, Freddie bounces around from one job to another, unable to find peace due to his violent outbursts and alcoholism. One night, Freddie sneaks his way onto a yacht belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a radical new movement called ‘The Cause’.
Almost immediately taken with the wayward soldier, Dodd – the self-proclaimed ‘Master’ – attempts to use his new student to showcase The Cause’s potential to transform even the wildest individuals. Throughout his latest film, Anderson poses a great deal of interesting questions but, in a move which will no doubt frustrate many viewers, the independent American director leaves it to the audience to analyse the various themes and metaphors at play. In most cases this would be admirable, but the problem with The Master is that there is little to no dramatic development at all.
There are some instances where the validity of Dodd’s methods are called into question, but Anderson never forces the issue, meaning we never get a sense of why (and how) he has amassed such a following. Instead, we watch on as Dodd gets Freddie to perform menial exercises such as walking from one end of the room to another, touching walls and windows. It’s hardly riveting at points, and with the pay-off never coming, the question of whether ambiguity was the best option here is a valid one. Proceedings aren’t helped by the fact that Phoenix’s Quell is frequently unpleasant to watch. It is, to say the least, difficult for viewers to connect and sympathise with someone who engages in such off-putting actions.
The closest we get to discovering what made Quell this way is a head-to-head ‘processing’ conversation with Dodd, where more ugly truths are revealed but true understanding remains elusive. If The Master can at times be slightly arduous to watch, it is by no fault of the actors, all of whom are beyond reproach. Phoenix is as committed and meticulous as any actor can possibly get, right down to his character’s mannerisms and physical stature. Hoffman is well-cast as The Cause’s charismatic and dignified leader, whilst Amy Adams is quietly brilliant as Dodd’s wife.
The beautiful cinematography is at times awards-worthy, and another dissonant score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood complements Anderson’s work nicely. Yet, with a story that is so often stagnant, these are merely tasty toppings on a troublingly bland cake. Undoubtedly, there will be those to whom The Master will appeal to. However, those who prefer a narrative which features more on-going character development – a characteristic that is inherent in most films – may want to avoid Anderson’s mindboggler.