The Master was one of the most discussed, analysed and argued about films of 2012. Battle lines were drawn between those who see Anderson cementing his reputation as the first filmmaker of the 21st century to approach the level of Kubrick, and those who see this as the ultimate in art house emperor’s new clothes. It is not inconceivable that nations could go to war over this picture.
Largely set in post-WW2 America, the film begins with a startling prelude featuring US navy servicemen wrestling and building anatomically accurate naked women out of the sand of a South Pacific beach. The sequence recalls the films of Kenneth Anger and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail in its mixture of eroticism and threat. Here we meet Freddie Quell (Phoenix), one of the film’s two protagonists. Quell is a wreck of a man, deeply traumatised by some unspecified war experience. He is an advanced alcoholic, mixing concoctions of his own design from torpedo fuel and paint thinner; a character in a perpetual state of chaos. We follow him through the post-war years into the fifties as his drinking, womanising and erratic behaviour see him fired from a series of jobs and slipping every further into the dark margins of the American Dream.
Running from another scrape, Quell stows away on a ship hosting what appears to be a swinging party. It is here that he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher ... but above all I am a man”. Dodd is the charismatic master of ceremonies on the voyage, which includes presiding over his daughter’s wedding. It emerges, that Dodd is the leader of a nascent philosophical movement called The Cause, and he sees something in Quell, something that makes him want to make this fractured, broken individual his personal protege. Quite what that something is, is one of the key mysteries of a very mysterious movie – even if Dodd's initial interest is in Quell's skills as an exotic mixologist.
There is no secret that Anderson's brilliant, complex and frequently infuriating film is a fictionalised account of the creation of Scientology, and that Dodd is based upon that belief system's notorious creator, L Ron Hubbard. Given the prominence of the Church of Scientology in Hollywood, this is a ballsy topic for any filmmaker. Even Anderson struggled to bring it to the screen (credit must go the the Weinstein Company for backing him), but The Master is not a simple character assassination. Anderson is not interested in mounting a polemic against Scientology; rather, he uses it as a method of peering beneath the idealised vision of post-war America and the American Dream. Instead of a land of opportunity being bravely won by returning war heroes, we see a country that casts out servicemen with deep psychological traumas and offers no support network.Dodd, whatever one thinks of The Cause, is apparently sincere in his beliefs, and his desire to help Quell.
Anderson and Hoffman create in Dodd a character in the process of building his own myth. Rather like the end of The Wizard of Oz, we are given a peek behind the curtain to discover the wizard is just a man, with insecurities and doubts like any other. Hoffman does superb work here, exposing Dodd's flaws – his vanity and barely suppressed rage – with a performance that is subtle and nuanced. On occasion Dodd is a buffoon, but he is also capable of compassion and he cares about the obviously damaged Quell when no-one else does. Phoenix is extraordinary in his role. The actor contorts both his body, and his face, becoming a physical embodiment of a twisted psyche. The two actors play against each other superbly, especially in several extended sequences where Dodd uses his own methods to treat Quell. Among the extended cast Amy Adams shines as Dodd's wife, initially appearing to be a dutiful spouse, it becomes apparent that she has a very important role steering the development of The Cause.
The film, which was shot in 70mm film by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, looks wonderful. Anderson takes some real risks, showing events as perceived by characters, and allowing key plot points to be open to multiple interpretations. This is a film of questions and mysteries; it does not present the audience with an obvious or moralistic reading of The Cause, but is clearly not an endorsement of it either. However the deliberate way in which the central question of what is driving the characters of both Dodd and Quell and their relationship is kept opaque and open to interpretation will infuriate many.
An extra-special mention must go to the score. Anderson has again employed the services of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and the musician has crafted a strange and often unsettling soundscape that perfectly compliments the films skewed vision of the 1950s. One hopes it is properly recognised come Oscar time unlike his equally great music score for There Will Be Blood.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult film – it requires the viewer to work hard. It is not as obviously entertaining as Anderson's previous work There Will Be Blood (one of the few inarguable masterpieces of 21st century cinema) but it may upon repeated viewings emerge as just as important. Time will tell.
EXTRAS ★★★ Outtakes and deleted scenes (20:00); Unguided Message, a behind-the-scenes featurette (8:01); Let There be Light, a documentary from 1946 about WWII veterans (58:06); trailers.