Venice 2012: The Master
Posted on Saturday September 1, 2012, 12:02 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
The Master is one of those films that takes on a life before anyone has seen it, fuelled by rumour and information of the dis- and mis- kind. Before going any further, I feel duty-bound to say that this film is not in any way “about” Scientology or a takedown of L Ron Hubbard and his pseudo-scientific “religion”. If anything, it is a very old-fashioned love story, forged in the style of Nicholas Ray or, at a push, Douglas Sirk, and should perhaps be regarded as a man's picture of the kind lately being made by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Biutiful) or Jacques Audiard (Rust And Bone).
Where to start? After There Will Be Blood, this is another outstanding technical achievement from Paul Thomas Anderson, and, visually, the film is near faultless. Some felt it a little long, and it does wobble slightly in the second half, but this felt more controlled than its predecessor, at least to me. If TWBB was about the founding of contemporary America in a crucible of greed and violence, The Master is about the healing America needed after its rebound from the Second World War, and the film's special relevance to today involves central character Freddie Quinn (Joaquin Phoenix), a former Marine who is dumped back into society with an insufferable personality disorder and a drink problem fed by a talent for making potent moonshine. After falling about as far as a man can fall, Freddie ends up on a boat belonging (or maybe not) to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-help guru who sees this broken man as the perfect test case for his developing cult.
Dodd does not like the word cult, however, and bats it away; he calls his cause The Cause and he sees himself as a liberator, on a quest to return mankind to its “perfect” default status. The similarities to Scientology founder Hubbard are distinct in this regard; Dodd uses emotive questioning (“processing”) to gain access to his subject's most private thoughts and fears, insists that past-life regression holds the key to the future, and is a very, very, very bad writer. But this isn't about a charlatan, even though this master is seen through at myriad points in the story. Dodd is never fully defrocked or exposed; the only enigma in this movie is why Dodd is doing what he does, and Hoffman portrays him with wit and humour. The socialites who fund him are easy meat, so Dodd, clearly a smart man and a brilliant extemporaneous thinker, perhaps gets a kick out of trying to get through to Freddie, this most base of men, obsessed with sex and quick to violence.
The emotional core of the film, however, is about what Freddie wants, and the crucial line of the movie comes near the beginning, when Freddie is questioned before discharge about a crying fit he was seen to suffer. Freddie claims it was down to nostalgia, a letter from an old friend's kid sister. “I saw a letter, I read it,” he reasons. Freddie's pent-up passion is the motor for the movie, a requisition of an old Hollywood theme used in much the same way as Gus Van Sant used it in Good Will Hunting – likewise The Master is not a film about Scientology, it is a film about a girl, a love Freddie cannot face or deal with and a secret to be prodded and investigated by the curious Dodd.
Aside from Mihai Malaimare Jr's astonishing cinematography and Jonny Greenwood's brilliant score, it falls to Hoffman and Phoenix to sell this story. Both are phenomenal; Phoenix a bent, twisted, unpredictable letch whose naivety betrays him at every turn. Hoffman, meanwhile, is a sweet and avuncular showman whose methods, though unorthodox, do sometimes seem to get results. The ending is a strange one, a far cry from the crescendo of There Will Be Blood, but there's a wordless poetry here that will continue to beguile for quite some time. The Master will not be to all tastes, and there is a lot left out to make space what sometimes feels shouldn't be in, notably a long demonstration of techniques by Dodd in the second half. But this is a film that aspires to brilliance and beauty from a most exceptionally talented director, a sometimes breathtaking work of true modern cinema that explores a very peculiar time and place with wit, humour and emotion.