Film review by Jason Day of The Master about a disturbed man from the wrong side of the tracks and the evangelist who tries to save his soul. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a disturbed and violent former seaman, drifting and drinking heavily from one low-skilled manual job to another after being demobbed after WWII. One day he is discovered as a stowaway onboard the boat of rich evangelist Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is celebrating his daughter’s wedding. Dodd and his wife (Amy Adams) recruit him as a case study in action about how to turn a man from animal behaviour to a more upstanding, sober and spiritually happy person. It is a difficult journey, as Freddy seems to be a wild card to the core.
Definitely not a film that Tom Cruise or John Travolta will be queuing up to see anytime soon, though there’s no accounting for movie taste these days.
According to the critics at least, American director Anderson can do no wrong. His last film, the much-lauded oil drama There Will Be Blood, scooped an Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis in the main role and secured further nods for Anderson alone as director, writer and co-producer.
This is his much awaited next film, a biography loosely based on the work of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (Hoffman) and already comes with an impressive round of filmic applause (winning the Silver and Volpi cups at the recent Venice Film Award). It also comes armed to the high teeth with actors bristling, twitching, exploding.
Phoenix, whose contorted body perfectly reflects the deep inner turmoil his war veteran character is going through, proves he might well be the one and only successor to Robert De Niro’s acting crown. This is a towering characterisation of well-judged grumbles, tortured grimaces and volcanic physicality. When he is chased across the furrows of an empty field, Anderson further illustrates not only the complete isolation of this very troubled person, but also the blank slate on which Dodd has to write on.
Hoffman is not an actor to shirk away from uncompromising and difficult roles. The title of his title character clearly refers to his need to subordinate people and bend them to his way of way thinking; this show is a powerful combination of unassailable self-belief, great wit and oratory skills tinged with contradictory elements (he criticises others for having ‘animal’ beliefs, but is quick to resort to swearing, vulgarity and rolling around in the garden; he is also not above stealing from people and moving in to their homes for extended periods). He also manages to make some admittedly odd moments weirdly affecting, such as when he sings ‘Slow Boat to China’ after Phoenix’s character returns to him, though the irony of the lyrics, describing someone who has lost heavily, is not lost on an audience unfamiliar with the tune.
Adams has shown in the past many times the steel that runs through her veins and this role, as a furiously loyal and glavanising force in Dodd’s life, does not betray that. Adams’ intelligent and forceful turn ensures that after the film has finished you are in no doubt that Dodd would not be the man he is without the belief and support of people like his wife.
There are some cute support turns from the younger cast and Dern makes a welcome cameo as middle-class follower whose infatuation is quickly tested.
Any film by Anderson is sure to please and confound in equal measure and The Master is no exception. This is probably one of his most static films, given that they are usually characterised by a constantly moving camera, though it does feature key themes that run through his work, notably that one character is an outsider who must assimilate into a family and that America is seen as an alienating place. It is therefore no coincidence that after completely failing to fall into Dodd’s family stateside, he is energised to start again when Dodd decamps to England. In this film, there is the added tension of a man at his lowest ebb learning to control his baser instincts and ‘perfect’ himself but only by first succumbing to the domination and will of another person.
Anderson has been quoted previously about hating being asked to explain his movies and the motivations behind creating them. He might want to ignore that question if anyone wants to know he chose to make a film based on some like Hubbard (or possibly face the opprobrium of Hollywood’s higher echelons), but The Master still stands handsomely as a thoughtful and powerfully acted discussion about how to achieve civilised behaviour and the affects this loss of individuality can have.
Cast & credits
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. The Weinstein Company/Ghoulardi Film Company/Annapurna Pictures. (15).
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar.
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Camera: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Jonny Greenwood.
Sets: David Crank, Jack Fisk
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty, Lena Endre.