It would be interesting to know what Tom Cruise thinks of The Master, the new film from the director of Magnolia, in which Cruise played a ‘life coach’ with dubious credentials. After all, The Master is a thinly-veiled film about Scientology in the same way that Saving Private Ryan is a thinly-veiled film about the Second World War. Anderson is at pains to claim that the film is rooted in the psychology of America in the 1950s, and that Freddie Quell, the character played by Joaquin Phoenix, was inspired by his own father. Yet it’s clear that ‘The Master’, the guru played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his third collaboration with Anderson, is modeled on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard: not only is Hoffman’s physical resemblance to Hubbard remarkable (albeit one that flatters and dignifies the repugnant old fraud), but numerous details dovetail with those parts of Hubbard’s largely made-up history which we know to be true. When Quell first meets The Master (‘real’ name Lancaster Dodd), he is the self-styled ‘commander’ of a ship populated by acolytes of his self-help book The Cause (read: Dianetics – or rather, don’t), who regularly succumb to ‘processing’ (like Scientology’s ‘auditing’), private or public Q&A sessions which resemble normal psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic methods, but with no proven therapeutic effect. Like Hubbard, he is frequently in trouble with the law, likes to dress his younger followers in sailor suits, is dismissive of his former wives, and devotes much of his energy to fighting enemies both real and imagined. And, just like his real-life counterpart, he is a deluded fantasist whose sheer charisma allows him to paper over any cracks that may appear in his fabricated life story and make-it-up-as-you-go-along pseudo-religion. But although Anderson comes to bury Hubbard, not to praise him, The Master is not a thorough debunking of Scientology and its mendacious founder (for that, see the excellent Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard by Russell Miller.) In fact, The Master is no more a film about Scientology than Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, was about oil. As in that film, as well as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights andMagnolia, the settin is merely a backdrop against which to explore fascinating characters, and aspects of the human condition.
The Master begins with a series of lightly sketched and loosely linked scenes from Freddie Quell’s life – as a US Navy able seaman, a department store photographer, a farmhand – before he stumbles drunkenly aboard Dodd’s ship during a party. The next morning, he is invited into Dodd’s inner circle, seemingly for no other reason than he makes good ‘hooch’ – although it’s possible that Dodd recognizes something else, perhaps even his younger self, in the rootless, volatile Quell, who, like Dodd, is prone to sudden, violent outbursts. Although Quell is initially skeptical of, and resistant to, the mysterious cult of The Cause, he soon accepts it with something like the zeal of the convert, taking violent exception to anyone who questions the veracity or worth of Dodd’s bizarre pronouncements. Two time Academy Award nominee Phoenix, who plays Quell with haunted eyes, speaking his lines through a mouth twisted into a permanent sneer, looks certain to be the man to beat in the Best Actor category at next year’s Oscars – although if The Weinstein Company puts Hoffman forward as a leading actor, rather than a supporting actor, the two may end up going head to head. Both are equally deserving, giving the kind of bravura performances – on a par with Cruise’s Oscar-nominated turn in Magnolia and Daniel Day-Lewis’s larger-than-life, Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood – which Anderson is particularly good at enticing from his actors. (In a delicious twist, it may be Day-Lewis who gives Phoenix and Hoffman the biggest run for their money, thanks to his immersive role in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.)
That is not to say the men are the only ones doing exceptional work in The Master. Amy Adams, a three time Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress (for Junebug, Doubt and The Fighter, for those keeping score without access to IMDb), finally acts her age (38) as Dodd’s wife Peggy, who fosters her husband’s ambitions from the sidelines, tolerating his curious, perhaps even homoerotic fascination with Quell, and cautiously observing his outlandish behavior until she feels the need to correct it. It’s a minor role, to be sure, but in Adams’ hands Peggy acquires a significance that isn’t always represented by the amount of dialogue she has, and not always present in the dialogue.
Two other aspects of The Master are worthy of note. First is Anderson’s decision to shoot the film on the virtually obsolete 65mm format, which is a spectacular format for wide shots such as landscapes (it is the format used in IMAX cameras), but notoriously merciless when shooting close-ups, giving the actors almost no room to move within the shot, without slipping out of focus. Here, Anderson’s choice was inspired: the large format film not only captures every scrap of meticulous period detail (expect Oscar nominations for art direction, production design and costume), but the close-up shots lend the performances (especially those of Phoenix and Hoffman) an extraordinary intimacy, and corresponding intensity. But just as the unusual film format feels like a snug fit, Anderson’s choice of music has the opposite effect. Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who composed such a memorable and apposite score for There Will Be Blood, has on this occasion produced a discordant, dissonant soundtrack that, at best, feels at odds with what is happening on screen, and at worst, distracting. Admittedly, this is a minor niggle, and one which further viewings of the film may challenge.
With his last film, There Will Be Blood, Anderson seemed to be channeling the late, great Stanley Kubrick, and while his influence is also felt on The Master, the film owes more of a debt to Terrence Malick. This may be a sign that, with his next film, Anderson might move closer to tone poem than traditional narrative. In some ways, this would be a pity, because Anderson is a gifted storyteller who writes terrific dialogue; on the other hand, the world could use a few more filmmakers like Terrence Malick. Whichever direction Anderson’s interests take him in future, his place among American cinema’s true greats seems assured. On the basis of the handful of films he has made so far, he is a true master. ★★★★