Thursday 15 November 2012

The Master review

The Master (15/R, 143 mins)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited new film, his first since the monumental There Will Be Blood five years ago, is a drifting, enigmatic thing that is bound to please some audiences more than others.

On the surface it’s a film about a cult which some have likened to Scientology, which may well be the case. It’s not really important. The sceptics do get a voice, but it’s not an attack on it, put it that way. Disappointingly, it never fully succeeds as character study either.

Anderson’s skill at conveying character through action rather than words does drive the early stages though, as we encounter Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) just as the end of the Second World War brings his days in the navy to a close.

Something of an oddball, seemingly sex-obsessed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he drifts from job to job in the years following the war, never sure what to do with himself and subject to bouts of rage.

Freddie likes to make his own hooch, almost as much as he likes to drink it. On the run after being accused of poisoning someone with it, he stows away on a boat in San Francisco bound for New York.

It’s here that me meets Lancaster Dodd, played by Anderson’s frequent collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher”, any of which may or may not be the truth, but what most certainly is true is what a powerful and magnetic figure he is.

He leads a group called The Cause, and claims he can explore a person’s past lives through time-travel hypnosis, and that through this he can cure cancer and mental illness. Dodd sees the lost soul in Freddie and sets about trying to initiate him into their ways, but Freddie’s erratic behaviour consistently comes between them.

Deliberately paced, The Master lacks the clarity of intent that made There Will Be Blood so memorable. Like that film it has at its core a man of power and ambition and great will, albeit one who is most likely a brain-washing charlatan. It takes a while to show its hand, if it ever does, but the presence of its actors keeps you watching, and the technical expertise with which it’s all put together is beyond reproach.

But the content is the key, and it’s here that The Master both triumphs and frustrates. In a second half that’s largely unchecked by narrative conventions, it jumps between scenes that don’t necessarily relate or follow on to what’s come before. It’s never dull, but nor does it ever grab you by the throat and force you to engage with it.

This is all the more exasperating because, in Hoffman, we’re watching one of the finest actors on the planet command the screen. Phoenix is almost as magnetic in an astonishing physical performance, hunched and gaunt, his face perpetually contorted in a Brando sneer. Their initial scenes together electrify, as Dodd probes the weaker man into revealing the details of his past.

But it loses its way somewhat in a midsection that feels aimless and a final third that becomes increasingly obtuse and unaccommodating, and in the end The Master is an occasionally stunning but more often than not maddening experience.

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