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Film review: THE MASTER, from Built For Speed

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are full of charismatic psychopaths and charlatans who rule crazy corrupt mini-empires and use twisted faith to exploit the emotionally fragile.  It seemed inevitable, therefore, that Anderson would tackle the world of cults. His latest film The Master which is set in 1950 takes us within a strange organisation known as The Cause which may or may not be based on the early days of the Church of Scientology.  Lead by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who’s also known as The Master, The Cause purports to help people achieve a kind of self-actualization through bizarre regression and hypnosis-style therapies that allegedly cleanse them of base animal desires.

Literally stumbling into this world is the mentally damaged, violent, sex-crazed alcoholic ex-sailor Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). The film explores the familiar Anderson theme of dysfunctional Father Son relationships as Dodd takes Freddy under his wing and attempts to retrain him as a servant of The Cause which triggers a long and gruelling psychological battle between them.

Like most of Anderson’s films The Master will divide audiences.  This film is almost entirely character-driven rather than plot-driven and doesn’t seek any clear resolutions for its protagonists.  Rather than a standard narrative it’s constructed as a series of vaguely connected and often ambiguous episodes.  Consequently, some audience members may find it perplexing, pretentious and even annoying.

For those willing to immerse themselves in Anderson’s strange, rarefied world this will prove to be an intoxicating piece of cinema.  The early scenes which focus on Freddy’s chaotic, aimless Kerouac-like existence are particularly powerful.  Anderson makes excellent use of discordant classical music to convey Freddy’s fractured mind during these scenes. Like Walter Salles in On the Road, Anderson also establishes an utterly convincing sense of the period through sumptuous colour and intricate production design.  Particular mention should also be made of the wonderful cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr.

Even those captivated by Anderson’s unique vision may find that the film seems to briefly lose its grip about three quarters of the way through.  Fortunately, however, Anderson manages to reassert the film’s strange seductive power.

At the centre of this film are two towering performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.  Hoffman as the Master is a likeable , avuncular figure until someone challenges his dubious beliefs then he explodes with rage.  His charisma and manipulation of power, not to mention his physical appearance, are reminiscent of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.   Even better is Phoenix’ brilliant and unnerving portrayal of the volatile Freddie.  Crazy-eyed, physically twisted and seething with rage he fills every scene with tension as you wait for him to attack anyone who tries to reason with him.  This is a remarkable comeback for Phoenix following his bizarre turn in the meltdown hoax movie I’m still here.  The supporting cast are also excellent, particularly a restrained but imposing Amy Adams as Hoffman’s wife.

As well as the standard digital screenings in regular cinemas The Master is being shown at the Astor in 70mm which would be essential for any film lover.

Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Classification: MA 15+

Director(s): Paul Thomas Anderson

Release date: 8th Nov 2012

Running time: 144 mins.

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