THE MASTER directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (USA, 2012)

I was prematurely dismissive about There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous movie. I only really appreciated its quality and power on second viewing. I strongly suspect that the same will be true of The Master and certainly feel inclined to reserve final judgement until I’ve had chance to see it again.

The film’s opacity and lack of plot mean that there is a temptation to dismiss the universal critical acclaim it has garnered as hype and it is clear that,beyond the smart press, it has already divided ‘ordinary’ punters. It has been branded as a Marmite movie, something you’ll either love or hate.

If asked the question ‘what is it about?’, the most typical reply would be that it is a veiled study/satire of the birth of scientology but this seems a bit reductive to me. As it raises philosophical issues about the nature of madness, rationalism and existentialism, dismissing it on the grounds that there’s no narrative arc seems to me to be a superficial reading.

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) is the master of the title, a charismatic leader of a cult called ‘the cause’ which believes that our psychological and physiological disorders stem from traumas in previous lives. Ex-marine Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a perfect subject to test the effectiveness of Dodd’s analytical ‘process’ that consists of intense interrogation and hypnotherapy.

Quell is a walking bag of hangups which are manifest through obsessions with sex, violence and alcohol. His borderline state could be caused by the hell of war or, more likely, a domestic conflict with his father.

We never see his parents but there’s always the sense they are ever-present in his memory. In a stint as a photographer in a department store he gets aggressive towards an older guy for reasons which are not explained. Later he tells a ragged old farm worker he look like his dad and the next thing you know this man is at death’s door having sampled some of Quell’s hooch. The patriarchal figure of Dodd is both repellent and fascinating to him.

These are few actors who would be able to be so convincing in these central roles but Hoffman and Phoenix convey a level of tension that always threatens to explode or implode.

At 138 minutes it seems to me (on first viewing) to be over long but with this film, Paul Thomas Anderson confirms his place here among great, uncompromising maverick auteurs like Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick.

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