War veteran Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) returns from battle lost and violent. Moving from job to job and drink to drink, he remains anchorless until an encounter with charismatic and enticing philosopher, The Master (Lancaster Dodd – Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work throws together two unlikely (and unlikeable in many ways) characters; one desperately seeking direction and the other trying to seduce the world into a new one. They inspire each other, lock horns with and scream at each other, seduce each other, misunderstand and shine a light on each other.
On paper, almost nothing about The Master should work. The script is baffling, the relationship between the male leads equally so, the characters infuriating and the score tricksy and arrhythmic. But it does. Anderson has made an intense and beautiful film with these seemingly disparate and stubbornly diverse elements. Jonny Greenwood’s score doesn’t simply emphasise the emotions but drives the film through numerous gear shifts; Hoffman and Phoenix are both utterly consumed by their characters bringing a level of intensity to the screen that is truly invigorating; the script, in the meantime, is as deliberately vague in its motivations as its titular character.
There are times when you cannot even understand Freddie (especially when turned away from the camera) while Dodd’s blustering, room-rousing speeches only lead to confusion for the theatrical audience. What is his point? Why is he banging on about a dragon? At times it is infuriating, and yet it works.
Phoenix delivers a monumental, committed, physical performance. A hard-core, chemical alcoholic who can create intoxicating magic from almost any ingredients, he is physically diminished and quick-tempered with an aptitude for violence. His physical and mental limitations (when compared to picture of health, Lancaster Dodd) are indicated as much by his actions as by Anderson’s chosen shots – Freddie is repeatedly pictured framed in oversized doorways and made to look childish and immature with his responses and petty violence. He prowls like a caged animal and you are never sure what he is thinking.
The same can be said of Hoffman’s leader: his turn of phrase seems to come from another era (“Scrub yourself and make yourself clean” he says to Freddie in their first meeting) and when required, his language and tone of voice become very seductive; but he is not so far from Freddie when it comes to anger management issues. He struggles to take criticism from outsiders and Freddie can drive him to distraction. Hoffman displays a sensational amount of control over these two elements of his character and is an absolute joy to watch.
Mention should also be made of Amy Adams, who is also outstanding as Dodd’s wife, Peggy. Strong as steel and at points creepy as all hell, she doesn’t mince her words and isn’t afraid of expressing a different opinion to her master-of-the-house husband.
The most interesting element of the film is that it simply never does what you expect. Even halfway through the film you are still convinced that we are going to see the differences between the two coming to the fore and driving Freddie and Dodd apart yet they appear at once to become more and more similar, and ceaselessly opposite. Equally, they both defend The Cause with all their might (physical and intelligent) even though you are not totally sure whether or not Freddie even believes in it.
This fluctuation and inversion of plot and character arcs is fascinating and will lead to many a heated discussion. While there is not much emotional engagement with the film, the fascination with it will last beyond many a heart wrenching twist of fate.
An excellent piece of art that shows that not all films can be forced into a traditional formula and nor should they be. Anderson has created a work that people will be picking at and questioning for a long time yet, and he has done it in a beautiful way.
The Master is on General release in the UK from November 16th