Cult Fiction: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) – Blu-ray review
Anderson’s Cause: a prophecy of intelligent, adult cinema to his acolytes; an indulgent, obtruse curiosity to the Academy. The makings of a cult, in other words.
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
A cult must be many things: passionate, charismatic, enigmatic. The immediacy of first contact must be tempered by a growing awareness of the prophet’s cryptic refusal to give anything way – part of the mystique, or a hint that there’s less than meets the eye? And, crucially, it’s not for everyone; a cult is defined as much by its small number of acolytes as by the huge size of their worship.
The Master – less a film about a cult than a fully-fledged cult in its own right – might be the most perfect example of Method cinema in years. Paul Thomas Anderson has gone out of his way to make a film that enchants and puzzles in equal measures, from the extraordinary, insolently casual creation of indelible images, show-stopping performances and wow factor moments, to the increasingly oblique storytelling that leaves the jigsaw unassembled: a collection of shards to piece together like the Rorschach patterns shown to Joaquin Phoenix’s fidgety anti-hero, Freddie Quell.
Even in its making, Anderson favoured the cult approach. Everybody has gone digital? Fine – not only will Anderson shoot on 65mm (the first time anybody has done so in over a decade and a half) but he’ll project it that way, too in roadshow-style engagements more common to an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing epic than the contemporary art-house. Casting? Having got a taste for eccentrics working with Daniel Day-Lewis, Anderson will opt for Phoenix, whose last role was I’m Still Here’s deranged piece of autobiographical performance art, and who is no less risk-taking here in his sand sculpture-humping, paint thinner-drinking excesses. Budget? This is a chamber piece magnified by the independence funding of cinephile heiress Megan Ellison, giving the film an ambition rarely seen since the 1970s.
At its heart, The Master is incredibly simple… which of course a cult needs to be to capture your attention. It’s the story of Quell, a traumatised WWII vet struggling to fit in to the conformity of what will become the baby boomer era; unlike his peers, he doesn’t want to have babies but simply to practice making them. After a brace of serio-comic interludes in civilian jobs (including a bravura long take of a slapstick scrap in a department store), Quell finds his way to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a cult leader known as ‘Master’ to his followers and inventor of an is it/isn’t it Scientology a-like called The Cause. Dodd recognises that Quell remains at war with himself, and takes on the troubled vet as a project and protégé.
The fascination lies in what Anderson does with this framework. Just about any other director would have made a redemptive melodrama about Quell’s self-discovery, but Anderson sees only doubt. The protagonist’s name says it all: Quell can’t stop, and the film’s narrative – an episodic odyssey across sea and land – reflects Anderson’s own intuitive approach to story. While it’s Dodd who is accused of making up his cult, the same might be said of Anderson as he teases connections from the subtlest shifts in behaviour or the boldest juxtapositions of image (at one point, a jarring non-match cut from two people sitting on a stage to a breathtaking expanse of Arizona desert). The tone shifts, too – an intense, toilet-destroying meltdown by Phoenix quickly becomes a childish, comedic slanging match with Hoffman.
What does it all mean? Whatever you want it to, frankly, but essentially, it’s a parable of the impossibility of satisfaction. Quell only goes to war out of a fear of commitment, but as soon as he’s gone the loneliness starts to ache and he needs a new companion. For Dodd, too, companionship is something of a prison, and there’s the implication he needs Quell as much as Quell needs him: Phoenix admirably downplays for much of the film to become the audience for one of Hoffman’s most barnstorming performances. And in the background lurks Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife – unthinking follower of the Cause or the power behind the throne?
Nothing is certain, and enough of the film has the same sonamulantic feeling as the weird, awkward walk that Phoenix devises for Quell, to make you wonder if the whole thing is a fever dream. The same goes for the film’s status as masterpiece. Certainly, the early reviews – claiming that The Masterwould make the lame walk and the blind see – proved off the mark, as humdrum reality provided only a clutch of Oscar nominations for the stars and nothing for Anderson nor his formidable cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr.. (Watching it on Blu-ray is cause to ask, “Really? The Academy didn’t think this was good enough?”) But then, a cult tends to win neither mainstream approval nor acceptance, and it’s precisely that mix of scepticism from non-believers with the adulation of the faithful that will keep The Master’s fire burning.