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Friends and Masters

James Searle

Paul Thomas Anderson
The Master
The Weinstein Company
16 November
2012 (UK)






Few films released this year had quite such pressure placed upon them as The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his masterful There Will Be Blood. Given his almost spotless filmography (Magnolia, Boogie Nights etc.), expectations of Anderson are always high. With The Master they have been raised to almost mythical levels, owing to its controversial subject matter and dream cast of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, not to mention the likes of Laura Dern in supporting roles. Thankfully, the film is just about able to meet this lofty ask. Although it is perhaps not entirely as satisfying as some of Anderson’s best work, once you’re under its spell The Master is frequently captivating in a way that nearly always outweighs its frustrations.

The film, like Blood, is primarily about the relationship between two men. Freddie Quell (Phoenix, who is superb) is a WW2 veteran suffering from PTSD and severe alcoholism, who finds solace of a sort in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), founder of a new religion called the Cause, in which he is referred to as the Master. Needless to say, many parallels have been drawn between the Cause and Scientology, though thankfully the film mainly avoids the fish-in-a-barrel approach to criticising such ‘wacky’ religions. The Cause argues that man has forgotten his true nature of perfection and become a mere beast, but that by a series of treatments called Processing one can finally revert to an original, perfect form. However, the Cause is not really the subject of the film itself. Instead, it merely contextualises the relationship between Quell and Dodd.

Quell is very much a lost soul. Most of the film feels decidedly skewwhiff, as if we are seeing things from a perspective not quite in step with the rest of the world. This is partly because of Jonny Greenwood’s fantastic, staccato score and partly because of Anderson’s bravura direction, in which almost every shot feels slightly uneasy. The camera bounces between static frames where nothing feels entirely on-kilter to unnerving kinetic shots where the point of view lurches around in dizzying circles. It’s not hard to understand why Quell would find Dodd’s religion alluring, offering as it does not only security but also a respect never afforded to him since the war. The film is less specific as to what Dodd gets out of their friendship, especially given the distaste his wife Peggy (Adams) feels towards the interloper. Perhaps it is because the violent, volatile Quell in some way represents the ultimate beast, both an irresistible challenge and a fascinating case study. Maybe it is simply Quell’s virtuoso skill at making deadly cocktails. Or perhaps there is a connection between the two men that cannot quite be quantified (though The Cause does provide an amusing explanation near the film’s end). How else can we explain what bonds friends together?

And this really is a film about a friendship (and not ‘friendship’ in general but in this one particular example). There has been much discussion about the wider meaning of The Master, with many arguing that a second viewing is perhaps necessary if one wants to understand it fully. This might be the case, but I wonder if this film is really supposed to be interpreted as being about something universal. It is true that the film offers a compelling example of how those in vulnerable positions can be drawn to things they might otherwise find bizarre, and also demonstrates how easily they can abandon our principles—Dodd is nearly always on the edge of sliding between majesty and beastliness, and frequently drops over the abyss. But it would be hard to identify these as being major thematic components of the viewing experience. Rather, the tumultuous relationship between the two protagonists is the dominant impression with which we are left, and this is hardly disastrous. I would argue that despite the critical focus on what it might mean, the most important thing about The Master is just how compelling it is. Not only are the acting and direction top-notch throughout, when they cohere together in the film’s strongest moments (an electrifying Processing session, a hypnotic scene at a party, a shot of Quell and Dodd walking in perfect sync) it really is like nothing else I’ve seen this year. And what more can one ask than that?

James Searle is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St Anne’s College, Oxford.