Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

*****

Do you remember getting a surprise gift under the Christmas tree when you were young? The kind in a box that you’d poke and prod and shake in an effort to ascertain the contents before eventually unwrapping it? The Master is that kind of gift. It comes with pretty wrapping paper and ribbons, but the best part is probing it in anticipation of what’s inside.

Poke and prod as you might, The Master refuses to give up its secrets easily. Even though it’s got a rep as ‘the Scientology movie’, that’s only a portion of what Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is about. There are layers upon layers upon layers here, like Leo DiCaprio performed Inception on an onion. That said, chances are you’d have to dig through many a layer of neurosis and angst to get to wherever Joaquin Phoenix is at, mentally speaking.

If anyone thought Phoenix had completely lost his mind when he made I’m Still Here, you’ll be hoping for men in white coats to approach from the wings throughout The Master. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a recently-discharged U.S. Marine, but right from the opening scenes it’s clear he isn’t exactly the most upstanding of Uncle Sam’s boys. Hunched, violent and with a penchant for smut and alcohol, Quell is an animal, albeit one actively searching for someone to tame him. The US he wanders through is taming itself after World War II with Mad Men-style advertising and Jesus. Having lost numerous jobs, Quell is quelled having discovered his own personal Jesus. Enter Lancaster Dodd, a preening gasbag of self-importance brought to doughy life by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd leads ‘The Cause’, which can only be described as a Scientology-like cult, with its methods of dodgy pseudo-psychiatry and charismatic leadership. L. Ron Hubbard may be the inspiration for Dodd, but Anderson is not out to satirize Scientology or any other cult. Admittedly, if he were, The Master would be a lot easier to grasp.

Anderson has earned comparisons to many directors with his short filmography. If Boogie Nights saw him channel Scorsese and Magnolia was the best film Robert Altman never made, The Master is full-blown Kubrickian chilliness. Whether it’s L. Ron Hubbard, Timothy Leary or the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, cult heads  are often built on charisma and the backs of the vulnerable. Quell needs the expertise of a psychiatrist, not the blind stabs of a wealthy after-dinner speaker. That said, The Master is not an anti-religious diatribe; the story begins and ends with Freddie Quell. His energy makes him rich pickings for Dodd, but his animalistic impatience is a liability. Who’s toying with who? Many a beautiful moment in The Master occurs when the worshipper becomes the deity.

Whilst The Master is too veiled to be a critique à la Full Metal Jacket, it takes its cues from Kubrick’s distant and cruel eye, reserving its secrets for those willing to devote the time to working its mysteries out. Quell is just a step down from Jack Torrance in the mania stakes, whilst various scenes and narrative points recall the likes of A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut. There are moments that may make you raise your eyebrows in quizzical confusion, but then some of these scenes are from Freddie’s point of view, so they may not even be happening. The Master leaves that decision, and many others, up to you.

The relationship between Quell and Dodd is the crux of the film, and continues Anderson’s line in shaky father figures from Boogie Nights onwards. Phoenix the madman and Hoffman the snaky charmer are an odd but weirdly compatible duo: the master and his right-hand neanderthal. Amy Adams, as Mrs. Dodd, looks on somewhat aghast at Quell, and her slow-boiling vexation compliments that of the audience. As Quell submits to Dodd’s ‘treatments’, she can’t believe what she sees. You’ll struggle with it too; Phoenix is nothing short of unhinged. Memorably so, but still unnerving enough to leave you feeling uncomfortable.

Spiritually, The Master is a companion piece to There Will Be Blood. Both period pieces say something about the times they’re set in, though TWBB was arguably more accessible. The odorous oil fields of turn-of-the-century California are swapped for the sanitized 1950s, a fact reflected in Mihai Mihalmire’s gorgeously muted cinematography (less dazzling work than Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit, but notable nonetheless). As Jonny Greenwood stirs the hairs on the back of the neck with another taut score, the desperation for hope in these characters becomes clear, but more viewings will be needed to decipher it all. Yet even if the message is closer to the surface than first appearances might suggest, the return trips to this intoxicating film will not be in vain. Anderson has never lacked for confidence in his writing and direction, and The Master is another of his cinematic Rubik’s cubes, awaiting your wonderment.

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

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