The Devil in Disguise – ★★★★★
To say Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master is merely about Scientology would be doing it a disservice. It is an expertly crafted examination of the human condition and our need to belong, find identity and create a path in life.
The war is over and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is back in society trying to find his place. Too dependant on home made hooch and his fists to settle a problem, he finds himself adrift only to be brought back to land by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the master of a “cause” which believes we have all lived for many thousands of years and our present day bodies are only the vessels we inhabit at the moment. The two are drawn in some hope of finding truth and the limitations of man, but whether they can do this together is the real unknown.
Rarely does Philip Seymour Hoffman disappoint and once again he is on top form. He must balance the weight of his dream and the expectation of believers, all the time trying to understand Freddie. He is certain they have met before in some incarnation and is drawn to him, unsure how best to nurture or exploit the naval veteran. The Master sees so much of himself in the younger Freddie and wishes him to be the very foundation for his vision of the cause. We have scarcely seen such a performance from Phoenix before and the physical transformation devoid of make-up or trickery is astounding. Slightly hunched and shuffling, he calls to mind Charlie Chaplin in The Tramp or Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. He is a deadbeat drifter unable to find a place in society, nervous and unhinged from his experience in WWII. Overdependent on his own home brews and quick to fight he is ripe for the picking by any cult.
Therefore the pairing is exemplary. The Master is in need of a pupil to mould and Freddie is enthralled by the notion that he belongs and how someone is willing to take him on. What plays out is a classic father-son relationship, each seeing themselves in the other. So entangled with rage and frustration, Freddie finds it hard to come on board with the philosophy and processing involved with the cause. Here are the direct references to Scientology and the notions of cults in general. A clear picture is painted of how easy it is to cajole or con people into believing a philosophy. While we see without doubt that the film’s focus is on Scientology, it does seem to be a broader look at all religion. The same criticism was surely levelled and may still be at the Mormon religion, we almost come to the realisation that all that is necessary for a cult to become a religion is time.
| o | – Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am…
While the heart of the film is certainly Phoenix’s performance the supporting cast are without fault. Most notably the Lady Macbeth like Amy Adams as the Master’s wife Peggy Dodd. The lady is not for turning and is the iron core of the cause warning her husband of the dangers of Freddie as almost seems to be steering the course of the cause. To think this is the same Amy who was singing and dancing in The Muppets only last year is a testament to her craft. It’s always great to see Laura Dern and even though she only has a minimal role it is crucial as a representation of the voice of dissent when the master seems to be redirecting the whole movement by changing the word “recall” to “imagine”, (transubstantiation v consubstantiation anyone?).
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is back on scoring duty once again having previously teamed up with Anderson for There Will be Blood. The change from subtle, almost unnoticeable, mild piano tinklings to great orchestral work is done with great fluidity and the music becomes its own character. Anderson has gone with a new cinematographer leaving Robert Elswit (There Will be Blood, Punch Drunk Love , Magnolia) for Mihai Malaimare Jr. and the partnership is a great success. Huge transitions from interiors to exteriors are flawlessly executed and essential to the piece as they capture Phoenix’s dual sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia.
With the opening scenes of Phoenix on a beach in the Pacific parallels can be seen with Malick’s masterful examination on war The Thin Red Line. With Malick apparently retreating to nature and concerning himself with imagery, Anderson is obsessed with the character and both may put the story on the back burner which some find irritating. There is certainly enough of a story contained in The Master but its strength is in the characters. Fantastical elements and wondering if scenes are real or imagined merely add to the intrigue.
The Master will undoubtedly divide opinion about its worth and meaning, but no one can deny the brilliance of its direction or compelling acting. It is rare that you can return to a picture for repeat viewings to see and experience something new but I feel The Master is one such film.
USA / Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson / Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson / Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams / 143min / Drama / Release: 14 September 2012 (US), 16 November 2012 (UK/Ireland)