Over the years, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have perfected his journey into tackling big themes through personal stories and through flawed, toxic characters.
Case and point: The Master.
Religion was a prominent theme in Anderson's previous effort There Will Be Blood and you could say that the whole film, despite outlining the rise and fall of Daniel Day Lewis' oil tycoon, was indeed about the relationship between business and religion. With his latest, we take a look at cults, yes, but also humanity in general. Here we have a Scientology-style organisation, "The Cause", based on the idea that Man is not an animal and, in fact, is far more important and deeper than he realizes and along comes Joaquin Phoenix's drifter, a down-and-out alcoholic drifter with a sex fixation. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffmann), the cult's "master", decides to make him his pet-project, his guinea-pig. But it seems that proving the core theory that man isn't just another animal, with a guy like that, is a little harder than he had anticipated. Besides, Dodd's inability to judge himself and his own followers honestly, in itself, disproves the entire thing.
The Master is a fascinating film about Man's struggle to become anything more significant than what he actually is and make sense of his own reality. Phoenix is impressive as Freddie Quell, the unhealthy-looking sex-obsessed sociopath who makes crazy-ass drinks out of paint thinner, but it's not just his physical performance that stands out, he brings a child-like innocence to the part that's in direct contrast with the rest of his character. Which adds a bizarre sweetness to an otherwise quite repellent figure. His surprisingly decent relationship with a young woman he met before going to war gives his character an unlikely, underlying maturity as well, making Mr Quell a three-dimensional guy that's paradoxically too simple and too complicated for Dodd and The Cause to handle and understand.
Hoffmann's L. Ron Hubbard-type is a classic Paul Thomas Anderson creation: deeply flawed and quietly borderline insane, prone to fits of childish rage and just generally a pompous megalomaniac kept in line by his manipulative wife (played against-type brilliantly by Amy Adams) but you still can't take your eyes off the guy. Actually, the whole cast is perfect and once again Anderson gets the most out of every single actor and actress involved. The film also looks gorgeous and boasts the usual type of stylish grit we've come to expect from the director. It's full of enough surreal visuals to keep you both enthralled and slightly uncomfortable. Watch out for a nudity-heavy scene you won't forget in a hurry and tons of freaky-weird "de-hypnosis" experiments. The film shows you how one could easily be convinced by The Cause, no matter how odd its theories become over time, but keeps its focus square on Quell, the failed experiment to end all failed experiments.
The Master won't please every moviegoer, some will be put off by the somewhat slow pace and long running time, others simply won't know what to make of it. It really depends on whether you find the subject matter interesting or not. While The Master lacks the power that made There Will Be Blood such a strong, unforgettable piece of work, it's still a fascinating, occasionally unsettling, fable. And a really well made one at that.