Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for creating compelling films centered around anti-heroes. With There Will be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights we are given a hoard of characters who are often unlikable though charismatic and transfixing. Anderson's work reflects an interest in the human condition and it's shadows which make his films memorable though not so perhaps their story lines. With The Master Anderson is reunited with his now regular actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Set in 1950, Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd the titular master over an organisation known as The Cause. Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, once a sailor in the US Navy and now continuing his alcoholic life through a series of jobs before stumbling upon Dodd and his organisation. The quiet self-aggrandising charismatic and mercurial Dodd takes Freddie on as a project for The Cause to the disapproval of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). The Cause itself indicates that it might share DNA strands with what is known about Scientology including the quasi-scientific methods and the cult like dreamy fervour around it's follow. Anderson baths the beautiful costuming and set design in warm tones of 1950s America. The picture postcard pleasantness allows for Phoenix's domed backed unnerving performance as Freddie and the swell of the soundtracks beatnik percussion to be even more striking in the film. Phoenix's Freddie never makes for comfortable company and the film is at it's best when Freddie is in conversation/treatment with Dodd. Seymour Hoffman can play a likeable character capable of ferocious shouting perhaps in his sleep at this stage and employs these skills for Dodd. Amy Adam's Peggy has a steely core with a conviction in her husband and The Cause that outweighs the crude physical defence of the organisation that Freddie takes on.
The cracks in the characters and The Cause are played out with real finesse. The script is both open about the faults of the characters whilst also maintaining levels of seductiveness and defensive fierceness that doesn't allow for immediate dismissal. However, though Freddie is the main central character, the film's narrative structure appears to change from observing Freddie to being perhaps from within Freddie's own mind. The possible real vs dream sequences arguable stretches the film into overly clever territory which takes from the story's momentum. There is also a moment near the end of the film which is unintentionally hilarious. But in terms of character study and performance, Seymour Hoffman is reliably solid while Amy Adams continues to produce remarkable divergent performances with the pregnant Peggy assured zealot nature appearing more dangerous than her charming husband. Joaquin Phoenix however, has given an astounding performance as Freddie being both unsettling unhinged and near redemptively damaged. As with Anderson's There Will be Blood, The Master is an excellent film though not necessarily pleasant.
Rating: 4/5 Stars The Master USA 2012 Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams. The Master has a limited UK release exclusively at the Odeon West End in 70mm. It will be in general release in the rest of the country on the 16th of November.