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Home Reviews Cinema reviews Film review: The Master
Film review: The Master Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 November 2012 17:49
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
The Master trailer

“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher… but above all I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you." That's how Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) describes himself to Freddy Quell (Phoenix) when they first meet.

It's telling that he uses so many words to do it. Compared to the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson's last film – simply, "an oil man" – The Master is more than just an adjective and noun. He's a whole bunch of nouns. It’s even more telling that we never hear Freddy’s own introduction. He’s an "able-bodied seaman”, but those words come out of Dodd’s mouth, not his.

Their meeting marks the start of a fascinating relationship, one that sees Dodd’s charismatically hirsute cult leader consume the former naval officer; soon, his voice is seeping into his flashbacks, his giant moustache sucking out the other’s identity with its hairy gravitational pull.

Oh yes, like Anderson’s brilliant film before it, The Master is a blinding look at what happens when two powerful forces collide. Unlike Anderson’s brilliant film before it, though, The Master never really finds an ending.

There is some development to see as Freddy struggles to find himself. Washed up in the wake of the war, he’s a bow-legged loser who can't talk straight – a fantastic, wonky-mouthed turn by Phoenix, who starts off groping sand women on the beach and ends attempting it with the real thing. But that’s as close as we get to a conclusion. Instead, Anderson is happy to leave us wandering, never moving forwards but always looking back. Stunning shots of slow-motion water drifting in the wake of a boat flash up every few minutes, evoking nostalgia almost as easily as Ella Fitzgerald crooning Get Thee Behind Me Satan in the background.

It’s a fitting theme for Freddy, whose disoriented limbo no doubt represents the whole country post-conflict, just as his knack for moonshining any object (a coconut, a cabbage, some mouthwash) echoes Dodd’s ability to concoct addictive nonsense out of thin air. As for Hoffman, his calculating showman is intimidating yet charming, eulogising about rising above animal urges one minute and sinking into depravity the next.

There’s a sense that Anderson is reaching outwards, as with There Will Be Blood, to explore a key flaw in America’s (or, indeed, our own) nature: the longing for past certainty, the need for a crutch to fill some perceived hole. But if The Master raises these kinds of lofty issues, it never quite wrestles them into a fully satisfying film. Die-hard Anderson devotees would say that’s the point. Others may stretch, fiddle and yawn.

At least it gives Jonny Greenwood’s score a chance to steal the show. An unsettling mix of ever-shifting rhythms, it’s a hypnotic piece that captures the sound of a population in disarray, slowly retuning itself up into one discordant mess. It achieves everything Anderson aims to in under 46 minutes.

Still, there are undeniably moments of real impact on-screen. One scene sees Freddy explode with rage, while Dodd stands in the corner of the frame, coolly watching his work pay off. Then, halfway through, his wife (Amy Adams) seizes control of Quell – and our perspective. “What colour are my eyes?” she asks, before demanding he change them. It’s a terrifying demonstration of psychological power, one compounded even further in a bathroom scene that hints that Adams is really the one driving The Cause forward.

Most of all, though, it’s the repeated cycle of questions and answers that lulls you into a stupor – and grates away at your mental stamina. “What’s your name?” says Dodd. “Freddy Quell,” he answers. “Say it again,” comes the reply.

Just like The Master ordering his guinea pig to walk back and forth across a room, Anderson sends us scuttling into one wall, then another, and continues to do so for two and a half hours. For some followers, that’s enough to make it a masterpiece.

“Is The Master a five-star film?” they ask themselves. Then they ask it again. And again. And again.