People talk about the ‘Great American Novel’, but if ever there was a film-maker who elevates his art to the ‘Great American Film’, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. There Will Be Blood presented a fascinating snapshot of the frontier era of American history, one where lust for oil and fear of God combined in a survival-of-the-fittest struggle. Where the self-made man was prized above all. With The Master, PTA turns his attention to the beginning of the 1950s. War has just ended, the ‘golden age’ of American consumer capitalism is about to dawn, but people are also being left behind. Some have suffered the scars of war and will never truly recover. Others are adrift, unwilling to bend to the system.
The Master has been billed as a semi-fictional account of the origins of Scientology. But it’s much more than that. It’s a perfectly realised human drama, evoking this 1950s America through the relationship between its two central protagonists – played masterfully indeed by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a sex-obsessed alcoholic returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, piled on top of a difficult childhood and a broken heart. He is physically and emotionally bent over. At his lowest ebb, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), an intense, charismatic cult leader who attempts to mould Freddie in his own image and join his band of believers. Dodd is the self-made man who preys on others’ vulnerabilities. He reminds me of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood in his drive, charisma and unnerving single-mindedness.
Quell is broken by war, and his gaunt, fragile condition is captured superbly by Phoenix, while Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader is perfectly pitched, capturing the ambiguity of his character – at times captivating and persuasive, but also volatile and insecure. The unfolding psychological drama is acutely accentuated by Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving score.
The Master has received near-universal acclaim, and deserves it. It is a multi-layered film with much open to interpretation and debate. It is utterly unlike anything else you will see, a fascinating study into the relationship between two men, with knock-out lead performances. Unmissable cinema.