This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 13th January 2013
The Master is a Great Film, but in the way that dictators, geniuses and misanthropic artists are often described as “great” – that is to say, they may achieve remarkable aims but you wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time with them.
In this vein, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest progeny (only his sixth feature film in an extremely illustrious career) is very hard to recommend. The PTA aficionados will see it without a second thought, and rightly so, and it has already topped various critics’ polls around the world.
It boasts typically powerhouse performances (as did There Will Be Blood), focuses on intense, dysfunctional relationships (see Boogie Nights) and a wily, weaving storyline (Anderson’s forte in Magnolia), though it leaves more questions than answers in its wake. Yet for all its cleverness, the sumptuous production design, incredible photography, deeply realised characterisation and the underlying backstory of a cult based not-that-loosely on Scientology, The Master can be a disturbing watch, a sprawling mess at times, both utterly enthralling and unsettling.
Immediately assaulting us with a dissonant, ill-tempo soundtrack, the story begins with Joaquin Phoenix’s alcoholic marine, Freddie Quell. Recently freed from military “service” in the South Pacific, we long to wash this man out of our hair as we watch him stumble from one ghastly situation to the next, in search of either rehabilitation or oblivion. Phoenix hasn’t played a likeable role since . . . well, ever, but damn he’s good, his concave physicality and unpredictable outbursts brilliantly belying Freddie’s awkwardness and inability to interact appropriately.
After yet another fuel-induced bender, Freddie stows away on a boat and chances on the opportunity for a whole new life, clutched under the avuncular armpit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Master. Freddie is such a mess we feel palpable relief as soon as we see Hoffman is in charge (a PTA regular and one of the finest actors around).
Leader of a shady but ostensibly benevolent community called The Cause, Freddie becomes his perfect foil, concocting batches of moonshine while Master invites him to have some “informal processing” to soothe away the mental and emotional blemishes on Freddie’s personal record.
With terrific support from Amy Adams as the Master’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, and a cast of proper old-time faces, there are moments when you know you are watching pure film-making genius, and others when you wonder what it is all about. Overall, the effect is like that of a Bacon painting: a cacophony of horribleness, artfully done.