I guess awards season must be coming up because there seems to be a battalion of serious weighty movies lined up on the horizon for our consideration (Michael Haneke’s Amour, and Spielberg’s Lincoln for example). So what better practice for the long chin-strokey hours I’m therefore going to be spending in dark rooms this winter than possibly the weightiest and chewiest of them all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s fresh slab of critic-bait The Master, which has already attracted a slew of rave, if sometimes bewildered, reviews from people who are supposed to know about such things? Although, actually, I’m was quite looking forward to this one – I’m an Anderson fan, mainly, and I don’t mind sitting through two hours or so of perplexing, if always superbly rendered, footage of people wrestling obscure personal demons in period costumes if it means you get the odd electrifyingly bizarre scene like Daniel Day-Lewis’s bowling alley wig-out at the end of There Will Be Blood thrown in.
The Master, like its immediate predecessor TWBB, is a highly idiosyncratic rummage through behavioural anomalies amongst the fringes and frontiers of the American past. It’s essentially a two-hander between Freddie Quell, a royally messed-up marine who’s demobbed at the end of World War II, and Lancaster Dodd, a self-styled philosopher who’s the figurehead for a nascent Scientology-style cult. When we first meet Quell he doesn’t seem interested in much beyond indulging his base appetites for rough sex and even rougher alcohol, which he concocts himself from whatever spirits and raw materials there are to hand, but when he lucks his way into Dodd’s orbit he seems to want to rise to the challenge of fitting in to a community, although he still never seems to be far away from an impulsive fist-fight. The considerably more worldly Dodd for his part seems fascinated by Quell, though whether this is because he considers the younger man a worthy experiment or just a useful source of strong and unusual liquor is never made fully clear.
And in a narrative sense that’s pretty much all there is to the film. The first hour is the most satisfying as we get to witness several queasy instances of Quell’s malfunctioning in polite society before we’re introduced to Dodd and his circle of family and intimates but from then on it feels like we’re waiting for a development that never quite happens: an exposé or a revelation or a tragedy or an epiphany even. What we get instead is closer to a dual character study, and thankfully both lead actors are always magnetically watchable, despite the lingering sense that nothing much is happening. Joaquin Phoenix proved in Walk The Line that he’s a natural for broody, inarticulate outsider roles and his Quell is a physically demanding tour-de-force – when he’s not beating someone up or leching horribly over some woman he’s being made the subject of some extended and unforgiving close-ups that demonstrate how much a good actor can communicate without using words. Phoenix manages to project a kind of wrongness even when he’s just walking, suggesting a twisted self-loathing inner being that’s never going to be straightened out by a subscription to a hokey cod-religion. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd by contrast is a man who likes to seem entirely in control of any situation, and his avuncularity and well-fed charisma remind me quite a lot of Orson Welles. Dodd knows how to win a crowd by using humour, and he even enjoys singing for his disciples, but hints of his true character are seen when his temper snaps on the rare occasions that his ludicrous belief system is challenged. I’ve seen Hoffman in dozens of films over the last fifteen years or so but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a performance as nuanced as this one before.
It also helps the time pass while you’re waiting for the non-existent pay-off that the movie is as handsomely designed and painstakingly accurate in its recreation of mid 20th Century America as it is. We get department stores, ocean liners, big suburban houses and conference centres all looking spot-on, and also one or two sequences set in plains, beaches and rocky wasteland that help break up the sometimes deliberately claustrophobic feel of the film. There are even a couple of scenes towards the end set in austerity-era England. Jonny Greenwood’s unconventional and vaguely free-jazzy score is also worth a mention for managing the trick of being both strikingly modern and a good fit for the time period. Even so, high production values and Oscar-worthy acting don’t necessarily add up to a masterpiece. I’m hesitant to pass judgement on The Master, as on past form I tend to like Anderson’s works a lot better on a second viewing (the first time I saw Magnolia I found it literally exhausting, but now it’s one of my favourite films). It’s certainly well-made, and it’s certainly not like anything else. It’s just that at the minute I’m not really sure what the point of it was.