NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The bulk of The Master takes place in America in 1950, far enough after World War II for Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) to seem freakish for not being over the traumas sustained during the war – which probably have deeper roots than the shared experience of combat in the South Pacific – yet before rock ‘n’ roll or the lionisation of rebels with and without causes gave people more obvious outlets for their neuroses. Perfectly in keeping with the period, Quell is like some fugitive James Jones protagonist – there are echoes of From Here to Eternity and (especially) Some Came Running, as novels and as films – and Phoenix goes for a kind of interior agony associated with wounded 1950s acting idols like Brando, Dean and Clift (and later generation equivalents like DeNiro and Kietel) while still creating a wholly original character, at once a coiled spring of potential rage or crack-up and a hunched-over minion eager to become Igor for a charismatic mad scientist visionary. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film makes an interesting contrast with the recent movie of On the Road, set at roughly the same time: it has a mesmeric gaze rather than restless energy, emphasising how Freddie is trapped by his own urges and yearnings (a key scene finds him in jail, smashing a toilet with no thought that he might need it, while his mentor calmly takes a piss in the next cell), and composes its images with precision and detail. It doesn’t play by anyone’s storytelling rules, not least in that it tells a small, intimate story at epic length, risking Malick/Kubrick-like audience alienation; it held my attention for 137 minutes, and risks a lot with a seemingly abrupt ending (in retrospect, perfect; at the time, surprising).
After a sexual breakdown in the service – the image of Quell and a woman carved of sand might be drawn from Aubrey Menen’s novel The Abode of Love, which also brings a spiritually and literally cast-away seaman into a true-life cult, albeit with a 19th Century setting – and time in a veterans’ hospital, Quell craps out as a department store photographer and an itinerant cabbage-picker. Apart from creeping people out and simmering, his only skill seems to be the brewing of a potent moonshine – missile fuel is a key ingredient – which is the talent that brings him into the orbit of the Master aka Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-like hustler-mystic-charlatan-megalomaniac (Hoffman purses his lips under a moustache in Wellesian fashion, evoking Welles himself as much as the roles he played) who has founded a belief system, which is continuously evolving as he makes it up, called The Cause. Some elements from Hubbard’s biography creep in, almost elliptically, but Anderson draws at least as much on the 1950s craze for past-life regression therapy (cf: The Search for Bridey Murphy) as the Master uses hypnosis as well as word-games to treat or dominate patients/followers. Amy Adams’ role as Dodd’s pregnant, committed second wife – who might just be the real master, the way the Prime Minister’s wife is the secret villain of The Ghost – is also at variance with Hubbard’s real family set-up.
Outside the frame, adherents join up and fall away, and the Cause attracts official interest and censure, but the movie narrows its focus on Quell and Dodd … to the point that the possibility is raised that this is all just an elaborate gay crush story (remember the obsessed, unfulfilled gay characters played by Hoffman and William H. Macy in Boogie Nights and Magnolia and the undercurrents between oilman and preacher in There Will Be Blood?) even though there’s also an air of heterosexual license as the Cause empowers its masters to assemble harems or bag babes. As set up by an early bit with Rorschach cards (all of which remind Quell of sex organs), Anderson is fond of asking you for your own reactions to scenes presented quite neutrally – what is going on at a party where all the women (subjectively or objectively) appear naked? What undercurrents are there in the huge moment when the Master croons ‘I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China’ to his disciple? How much transference has taken place when Quell uses Dodd’s answer-these-questions-without-blinking technique on a woman he is having sex with?
It’s an acting masterclass for the leads (the smart awards bets will push Phoenix for Best and Hoffman for Best Supporting), a defiant use of film as opposed to hi-def (noticeable especially in the sea scenes) and at once a European-style art movie and a Hollywood melodrama from the 50s (as in There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood’s music stirs in additional meanings). So strange that it demands multiple viewings, and so impressive that it might obscure an inability to decide what is actually going on between these two men, but it’s still one of the year’s essential movies.