Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up feature to There Will Be Blood, The Master brings new definition to cult film. Tom Seymour reviews…
Exhausted men parade a Pacific beach. In place of the real thing, they sculpt a girl out of sand and Freddie Quell – played with an unnerving conviction by Joaquin Phoenix – crouches over her, hovering there longer than he should. Later, when the men have left and the tide approaches, Quell will rest his head on her as if pleading for salvation. Soon she’s washed away. After countless battles, the Second World War has limped to an end, and a brave new America waits.
Much has been made of the film’s Scientology linkage, but this may be a MacGuffin. The Master’s director Paul Thomas Anderson has talked of the labourist writer John Steinbeck’s influence and, like There Will Be Blood, he has fashioned a slow-burning, complex and strange American origins story; about men limping home from war and expected to forge a new, modern nation, about a society still unready to contend with the ideals it holds aloft.
Phoenix, it has to be said, is magnificent in this film, a performance worthy of any of the great post-war films; James Dean’s Cal in East of Eden, or even Marlon Brando’s Terry in On The Waterfront. However, as with I’m Still Here, are we witness here to generation-defining acting or the performance of a man lost in his own identity crisis? Mumbling and manic, drifting but barely contained, Phoenix’s Quell moves from job to job, horizon to horizon, precisely because he can’t remain. He should have been swept up by his country but, like the girl on the beach, he’s being washed away. Quell’s relief comes in the form of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a pseudo-charismatic leader of a small group of followers and their amorphous ‘cause’ – “an urging towards existence.” Dodd’s meandering explanations about the origins of our species offer comfort and hope, so long as they’re not subjected to too much scrutiny. Their chance meeting – on a boat adorned with the American flag, drifting beneath the Golden Gate bridge – fosters a battle of wills between the two, but also a strange mutual dependency. Why, we’re not sure; Dodd is vain, reverential, jam-packed full of bull. Quell, on the other hand, wouldn’t know pretension if it slapped him round the face. But for Dodd, Quell is a protege; a Guinea pig used to test the boundaries of his existential methods. For Quell, this ‘cause’ is chance for some form of communal acceptance.
This isn’t a free-flowering melodrama that typifies so many of America’s beacon films; it’s a hermetic, constantly shifting performance-spectacle of a film. Audiences may not feel it straight away but, weeks away, the rictus smile of Freddie Quell may come back to remind us – only the dead see the end of war.
The Master is in cinemas now.
Text: Tom Seymour