Now showing @ Cornerhouse… Reviewed: The Master

By John Paul Shammas

One of the most anticipated films of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, arrives at Manchester’s Cornerhouse this week, and it was worth the wait.

After wowing audiences with the wondrous Boogie Nights back in 1997, each Paul Thomas Anderson film is now universally identified as an important cinematic event, and The Master lives up to the billing.

Much of the anticipation this time round however, was not to do with Anderson, but rather a combination of the subject matter, and also that it was to be Joaquin Phoenix’s comeback role after a faux-retirement. 

The Master was perceived to be his damning exposé of Scientology, but it is much, much more than that.

Phoenix plays a brutally psychologically damaged solider who, after having returned from the Second World War, is promised that an America of opportunity awaits him.  

‘Upon your shoulders’, he is told, ‘rests the responsibility of a postwar world’, a responsibility he struggles to reconcile with as he succumbs to alcoholism and, in time, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic, intellectual-swindler and cult leader known as ‘The Master’.

Hoffman’s character, who claims to be a ‘a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher’ is explicitly shaped upon L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, however that is as explicit  as Anderson gets in terms of The Master  being the exposé many people wanted.

What The Master does achieve instead is, just like with There Will Be Blood or Boogie Nights, a profound examination of a flawed father figure and the longing for something – anything.

Faith is of course the mechanic in which this theme that Anderson is clearly artistically obsessed with operates, but the scars that postwar America had to endure and how these unique set of characters operate in such a time is where Anderson earns his stripes as the greatest working director in cinema today.

There’s a sense in There Will Be Blood that no one could tell this story but Anderson. Looking back, Boogie Nights, for all its exuberance, charm and style, seems far too involved in cult of Scorsese-homage. 

But with There Will Be Blood, Anderson showcases to the world that he has found his voice which, somehow, he manages to take a step further with The Master

Accompanied with yet another masterful soundtrack from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, The Master is supremely photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr, laced with in-depth focus close-ups of Hoffman and Phoenix’s weathered, suffering faces.  

Phoenix’s character, Freddy, initially doesn’t take much interest in The Cause – the name attributed to the cult, but he is certainly intrigued by the people, or rather – seduced by their intrigue in him. 

It is not until The Master conducts his first stage of processing, a ritual that essentially initiates a prospective member into The Cause, that Freddy is taken in.

Hoffman linguistically forces him into the darkest realms of his psyche, leading him to simulating a dream-like encounter with a former lover, a 16-year-old girl, whom he has now lost.

This scene is as transportive and mesmerising as De Niro looking into the mirror in Taxi Driver asking: ‘you ‘talking to me?’ or those beautiful, candle-lit sequences in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon

Rarely are such monumental moments in cinema witnessed without delving into the past. Right there, we saw it, a moment we will all talking about years to come.

From there, Freddy is fiercely loyal to The Cause and, to an even deeper extent, it’s leader. All those who question its legitimacy or its leader’s intellectual and spiritual integrity are confronted, often physically, by Freddy.

Wether Phoenix’s character has a genuine belief in The Cause is open to debate, but so broken is his character that he finds himself all-to susceptible to Hoffman’s fabrications. 

The reasoning behind the devotion he shows is likely to be found in the thinly-veiled sexual subtext of the film, but what audiences are subconsciously returned to time-and-time again in The Master is the primary occupation of Anderson’s work: America. 

His filmography has explored capitalism, pornography, and now faith all within different timeframes of America, and within all those contexts, what does America consistently deliver for these broken protagonists despite all their good intentions? Longing and emptiness. 

So profound are Anderson’s findings within The Master that this masterpiece surely deserves to be held with the same reverence as Citizen Kane.

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