Let’s get this out of the way – The Master is not There Will Be Blood. Whilst that film was undoubtedly Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece his latest work is an entirely different beast.
Joaquin Phoenix as drifter Freddie Quell initially takes centre stage and is on excellent form here, his uncomfortable posture and awkward gait lend the performance an extra edge and he utterly convinces as a man with deep seeded problems. Whilst his performance is fantastic it is perhaps a little too long before we are introduced to the titular character of Lancaster Dodd, aka The Master, but once the two are introduced the film finds its feet.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is, to be frank, one of the great actors of this generation and his casting as the leader of a cult is absolutely spot on. The initial processing interview will have you glued to the screen and you will fear and respect Dodd from that moment on.
Another mention needs to go to Amy Adams, an actress who is rapidly gaining more and more respect, her performance here as Dodd’s matriarchal wife is excellent and she should be applauded once again for playing against type.
The cult elements are fantastically handled and introduced subtly and slowly as the film goes on. This brings us to the often asked question of whether or not the film is about scientology. Whilst there are some parallels to be made, any film that features a cult is bound to have this question asked of it. The answer here is to stop thinking of the film in that way. Yes, it features an enigmatic leader (who may or may not be based on L. Ron Hubbard) but the point of the film lays elsewhere. It’s about midway through when it becomes clear that this film isn’t necessarily about the idea of cultism but more the clash between the two men themselves. Dodd seems to see Quell as a challenge and is determined to help him whereas Quell sees Dodd as ‘the man’ and rebels against this. It’s a father/son dynamic that has cropped up in Anderson’s early work but this time round it’s brought to forefront.
Visually, as one might expect from Anderson, the film looks stunning and his framing of shots is nigh on flawless. The soundtrack too is excellent, this being the director’s second collaboration with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. Like his work on There Will Be Blood it’s not a traditional orchestral score that is so often associated with dramatic pieces but an all together more eerie composition that enhances the visuals and adds an atmosphere of unease to the proceedings.
Whilst it’s certainly not a film that will cater to everyone’s tastes, the mixed reviews and festival walk outs have already proved this. The decision to end the film with more a whimper than a bang will certainly prove divisive. Overall though, it’s a work of subtle brilliance from one of America’s finest filmmakers and it deserves as much praise as any of his earlier work.