by Allan Fish
(USA 2012 144mm)
To the poison
p Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar d/w Paul Thomas Anderson ph Mihai Malaimare Jnr ed Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty m Jonny Greenwood art David Crank, Jack Fisk, Amy Wells cos Mark Bridges
Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd (Jesse Clemons (Val Dodd), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Lena Endre (Mrs Solstad), Madison Beaty (Doris Salstad), Ambys Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Patty McCormack (Mildred Drummond), Amy Ferguson (Martha), W.Earl Brown,
When I first heard of The Master, long before it even went into pre-production, it had already become somewhat mythic. It was supposed to be the film that looked at the sinister heart of cult beliefs and religions, a thinly disguised attack on Scientologists that to many potential viewers may have seemed long overdue. But bear in mind the hotshots for whom L.Ron Hubbard’s dubious philosophy is part of their bloodstream, in particular the same Thomas Cruise Mapother IV who gave his greatest performance, and in money terms his seal of approval, in Magnolia by the self-same Paul Thomas Anderson. There was a danger that modern cinema’s greatest potential master was out to blow himself up, like the naïve genius of Citizen Kane all over again.
When the finished film finally arrived, however, it turned out to be anything but that we might have expected or, for him at least, feared. Indeed it’s hard at times to believe that it’s an original film at all. You look at this mixed-up, anti-social, psychotic, almost impenetrable protagonists Freddie Quell and he feels like the antihero to one of the great American novels; that’s the genius, PTA has made the first great cine-novel. It may be accentuated by the period (it’s set in the decade after World War II), but there are aspects of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Kerouac, even Ayn Rand.
It’s little wonder then that it was too much for many commentators. Here was an unconventional narrative which, for the most part, progresses linearly, but whose gaps, whose enigmas of narrative so that some aspects remain deliberately ambiguous, go against every school of traditional Hollywood filmmaking. There Will be Blood was an operatic piece, a great American dream turned nightmare. The Master is likewise set in the past, around half a century later, not coincidentally the period when L.Ron Hubbard was at the height of his dubious success. Yet this is also a recognisable past, a time of great disillusionment among not just Americans but the worldwide populace, and he captures this malaise with the uncanny brilliance of what could only be seen as a master.
Technically The Master is beyond brilliant, shot in 70mm and looking an absolute picture. Not just the photography and typically exquisite camerawork and editing, but those interior and exterior designs. Veteran and regular collaborator with Lynch and Malick, Jack Fisk continues his superb work with Anderson on Blood, arguably even outdoing it. Not to mention the pitch perfect costumes, right down to the choice of suits for Hoffman’s false messiah and Freddie’s shirts.
It’s in the characterisation that it really goes that extra mile, however, as in the end the whole Scientology parallel is pretty much backstory, merely the setting for the real drama taking place. The Master is really about the friendship, at some primordial intrinsic level, between Phoenix’s Quell and Hoffman’s Dodd. Though Quell is distinctly unlikeable and we know Dodd’s a charlatan, their relationship is real and achieves tragic dimensions so that their tears break you down and leave you floored, devastated even, at what has unfolded. It captures perfectly the sense of pain of someone who is beyond help of any kind. Hoffman is magnificent as Dodd, as one has come to expect from him, and Adams is chillingly loyal as his wife, but this is Phoenix’s show. So powerful is he, and so at odds with both the world and himself, one could almost come to see his recent sabbatical and, to be kind, strangeness, as method acting beyond the pale, in preparation for playing Freddie. Either way, it’s an astonishing accomplishment.