DVD: The Master | Film reviews, news & interviews
DVD: The Master
Madness and power collide in Paul Thomas Anderson's oblique American epic
The Master is one of several remarkably challenging epics which have somehow been financed in 21st-century Hollywood. Like Tree of Life, Synecdoche New York (also starring Philip Seymour Hoffman) and There Will Be Blood (also written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson), it attempts a fractured, literary grab at the American soul. The Master’s calamitous box-office means it might be the last.
Joaquin Phoenix returns to acting after the career-immolating performance art of I’m Still Here as Freddie Quell, a dislikeable World War Two vet on the run from the post-war US dream, and everything else he crashes into. Alcoholism is his only creative act, as he cooks up poisonous cocktails from submarine fuel or photo-lab potions. His lopsided smile with its suggestion of a scar, mirthless laugh and explosive temper mark him like Cain. Salvation comes when he hops onto the borrowed yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), charismatic leader of The Cause, loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Dodd is Falstaff as Alpha male, both halves of this unsteady equation recalling Anderson’s other inspiration for him, Orson Welles. A sort of seduction plays out between the pair across a series of gripping, barely connected set-pieces. The canvas feels large, but its focus stays tight: it's a character study where clues to character barely break surface.
Anderson broke the brooding intensity of There Will Be Blood with a bizarrely inappropriate last scene. The Master is poised on that edge of incomprehensible chaos from the start, as if, like Freddie, it’s not all there. Its leads are as unstable as nitroglycerine, hardly comprehensible even to themselves. You could call it a folly, but it’s a bit too self-aware and wonderful for that. Anderson seems more interested in over-reaching than conventional success. Where The Master fails, it fails big.
Watch the trailer to The Master
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