Trying not to be pressured by the rave reviews of The Master is hard: almost all the critics love it with everything from Little White Lies giving it a straight 5/5/5 rating to Total Film calling it the ‘boldest American film of the year’. In case you’ve been living on a hype-free Mars, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film to date takes post-war PTSD sufferer and general shambles of a man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) and stows him away on a boat with Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the writer of ‘The Cause’ and semi-cult leader. Quell becomes more entangled with the world of The Cause and Dodd as its Master as we learn more about the cult’s beliefs and challenges it faces from non-believers and cult members alike. As analogies for Scientology go, this one is not exactly subtle.
I’d call The Master an Emperor’s New Clothes film. It will split audiences, not only in terms of whether or not they liked it, but whether or not they admit to what extent they understood it (I’d put The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Donnie Darko and Anderson’s earlier work There Will Be Blood in this genre I’ve pretty much just made up). Here’s the thing- you can’t deny that The Master is trying to be really clever, and because the critics have hyped it so much there is the feeling that it must be really clever. So when you are watching it and thinking ‘What the hell just happened and why is everyone naked?’, there is the tendency to feel like it must be you who is missing something. That’s what I mean by a split audience: there will be people who will happily admit ‘I didn’t understand all of that’ and those who pretend they did, like seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Or maybe I am missing something, maybe there are people out there who ‘got’ it totally. Maybe I’m a bit thick. Maybe you aren’t supposed to understand it. Who knows? This isn’t to say I didn’t like The Master, I just don’t think I understood it all after one viewing. The running themes of post-traumatic stress, violence and cult psychology lend to a brilliant atmosphere in the film in which polite conversations, cult exercises, lunches, sex, marriage are all tools in a twisted relationship between all the cult’s members. When this is placed in a 1950’s setting of almost too perfect Mad Men style clothes and set, coupled with absolutely beautiful cinematography, it is all the more jarring and creates a kind of hyper unreal slant on reality.
Let’s not forget the acting quality. Joaquin Pheonix (back on form after the beardy-weirdy real-or-fake rap career I’m Still Here phase) approaches the character of Freddy with just about the right level of weird. He has such an expressive face, which captures the range of trauma and violence the character needs. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is charismatic as the eponymous Master and has some of the most intriguing lines in the film, only twice losing his charming exterior to reveal someone more explosive. The truly terrific performance in the film though is of Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), whose controlling and dominating nature seeps through, suggesting that behind every great man (or cult leader) there is an even greater woman.
If you think you can explain all of The Master to me, I’d like to hear from you