The Master - movie review

The Master is the headiest, most dreamlike and most languid rumination on subservience and loyalty this critic has ever seen. It combines some of the fiercest, rawest and most suppurating emotional vulnerabilities - addiction, denial, love - and channels them through two towering performances. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have never been in finer form. Paul Thomas Anderson, director, co-writer and producer, has created something truly unique.

The Master commences with an ocean. We then move to a group of profoundly idle and inebriated young soldiers, awaiting the official conclusion of World War 2 on a nameless beach. Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is hacking at coconuts and making nightmarish acidic cocktails out of rocket fuel, defiling a woman made of sand in front of his shipmates, and sleeping. The war ends, and Freddy is subjected to counselling.

After a series of volatile and harrowing encounters during Freddie's dispassionate attempts to reintegrate into regular life, he stows away on a ship, and is woken and introduced to Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an author and leader of a movement called "The Cause". The two strike up an odd friendship, perhaps best exemplified by Dodd's metaphor at a party on the boat, in which he talks (somewhat drunkenly, to a rapt audience) about lassoing a dragon, wrestling it, putting it on a leash, and being suddenly faced with the unenviable task of teaching it how to sit and roll over. That, right there, is the core of The Master.

It's truly alarming and deeply affecting to watch Dodd and Quell interact. Dodd is bound to his followers, and to his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who (this critic suspects) exerts more control over him and The Cause than the film explicitly shows. Quell is bound to nobody, but there's a distant, listless, vital part of him that wants to believe in something, in anything. Watching him endure loyalty to The Cause when it's obvious he's just loyal to the genuinely engaging and well-meaning Dodd is like watching a prolonged death.

There's a scene about a third of the way through The Master, in which Dodd and his group are at a party. Dodd has just finished talking the lady of the house through several of her past lives, and as he's explaining the process, he's interrupted by a soft-faced, feculent contrarian in the corner of the room, who begins to sow discord by questioning the validity of Dodd's regression techniques. Dodd bats away these assertions, and then something odd happens: the man throws down the word 'cult', a word that is only used in the film once. Instantly, this critic bristled. The very idea that The Cause was a cult seemed—after an hour with Dodd and his entourage—ludicrous, even offensive. In this way the film really unveils yet another layer of brilliance: it makes you react to the word 'cult' exactly how someone in a cult would. Even days after the screening, I can't help but feel real anger at the idea that someone could mistake The Cause for a cult, even taking into account the regression and so forth.

Phoenix and Hoffman are superb, but the rest of the cast is equally sound; Adams conveys the saccharine yet venomous duality of a manipulative matriarch, and Laura Dern lays down a small but solid turn as Helen Sullivan, a follower of The Cause. The score, by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, is unbelievable; it forms the spine around which the film is fused together. And whilst there are smatterings of L. Ron Hubbard - a charismatic author founding an organisation with unconventional ideas - The Cause is less a story about a cult (which I still maintain it isn't) and more a study of two men who utterly adore one another. And it's an absolute work of art.

profile of Paul Verhoeven