Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t make films very frequently (six films in sixteen years). He has much in common with Terrence Malick: he likes stately panoramas and juxtapositions between tranquillity and chaos, and has a penchant for dealing with profound, uncompressed human themes. Unfortunately, Anderson’s latest film may be his first failure: a 140-minute behemoth that is unwieldy, unsure of itself, and unable to live up to its Masterful name.
A quick synopsis: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran suffering from mental and alcoholic problems and a speech impediment, chances upon a yacht. On board is a ‘Master’ named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his eerily deluded cult of followers, who range from babies to septuagenarians. They are all devoted to a strange pseudo-philosophical movement they call ‘The Cause’, into which the young, violent and unstable vet is suckered. The film charts Freddie’s relationship with the cult, and with its outwardly confident but deeply insecure Master.
So what’s to like about the film? Well, it showcases the personal trait that made Anderson #1 on The Guardian’s list of the “23 Best Film Directors in the World” – his vision is certainly uncompromising. He refuses to pander to mainstream audiences, demonstrated by the sheer length of this film (in which, when all is said and done, not much happens), the hard-to-decipher mumblings of its protagonist Freddie, and the enigmatic opacity of parts of the script. Secondly, the two lead performances are absolute masterclasses. Hoffman’s brilliance is hardly a surprise, but Phoenix’s performance is the greatest since Casey Affleck played Ford in Andrew Dominik’s 2006 masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Well, at least that’s the only one that makes sense for the purpose of comparison: both were idiosyncratic outsiders on the fringe of a legend in the making. Finally, if you’re going to see this film, see it for Hoffman’s incredible delivery of the phrase ‘pig fuck’.
If films competed in an annual race, my money for the 2007 race would’ve gone on Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, one of the greatest films this century has yet seen. That was even longer than The Master, and its lead performances were no better; however, there were key differences. The themes were few – greed and capitalism, egos and religion – but grand and well-explored enough for them to hit hard, sink in, and mesh with each other coherently, providing a clear-eyed if slightly one-sided vision of America and its inescapable conception. Its stunning but scary panoramas served to enhance rather than obscure the film’s narrative, and its screenplay was enigmatic rather than opaque.
Of course, the opacity of The Master’s dialogue is part of the point. The film is about a cult that makes no real sense, and so much of what Dodd – who seems to live and breathe The Cause – says is riddled with non sequiturs, illogic, conjecture and veiled metaphors. Unfortunately, most of the metaphors and allegories in the dialogue are veiled so thickly and so pretentiously that it doesn’t seem worth trying to remove the veil. (Forgive my use of a metaphor to describe a metaphor.) The obvious allegory – that of the cult of Scientology – is, on the other hand, presented with very little subtlety. Dodd is far too quick to reveal his insecurities for him to be truly convincing, despite Hoffman’s stellar performance. Frustrating is the existence of one character in particular: the Master’s son, who tells Freddie that Dodd is “making it all up as he goes along”, a statement upon which no light is shed for the rest of the film. Maybe that’s because it’s irrelevant whether or not The Cause is fabricated. Either way, we find it hard to care much. Only the context makes sense: in a society recently shattered by war, existing frames of reference are insufficient for many people to make sense of the tragedy, and so new frames (in the shape of whole new beliefs) are begat.
Despite its passion, this film isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. In contrast to the fabulous actors, Anderson isn’t the master of his own material, probably due, in part, to the vagueness and uncertainty of his screenplay. The film’s considerable running time comprises two or three staggering set-pieces with interminable drift inbetween them. It’s a mess, and though it’s not a disaster, don’t believe the considerable hype: you’ll just become part of its cult.