Is Paul Thomas Anderson this generation’s Great American Filmmaker? It’s a question that hangs like an obfuscating haze around The Master, Anderson’s ambiguous, evocative study of anxiety and shady hucksterism in post-war America. A kind of love story between a damaged war veteran and a charismatic religious leader, it cements Anderson’s place as Hollywood’s most distinctive young auteur. It has also seen him compared to nearly every great director of the 1970s, most appropriately Stanley Kubrick, with whom Anderson shares a love of both 70mm film stock and a detached, ironic tone uniquely primed to create debate.
Straddling a shorter time frame than There Will Be Blood – and focusing on a relationship rather than the foundations of American capitalism – The Master is less avowedly epic in scope than its predecessor. Intimacy does not mean it is any less concerned with the forces that have shaped America, though, and the descent into depression, alcoholism and violence of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a potent portrait of the wounded soul of a demoralised nation. Looking to make sense of his pain, he is the perfect foil for Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-like preacher touting a solution known as The Cause.
Featuring an astonishing feel for period atmosphere, all captured by the unparalleled richness and depth of 70mm – a format barely used since its midcentury heyday – The Master is, at the very least, a masterpiece of engrossing realisation. It’s also anchored by two theatrical, bombastic performances, with Phoenix’s hunched, near mechanical gait reminiscent of a sickly version of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, and featuring a near incomprehensible drawl that only emphasises his discomfort when communicating with others. Dodd, by contrast, is a puffed out showman, capable of both theatrical entertainment and defensive bluster.
It is Quell and Dodd’s dynamic that provides the film with its most purely compelling moments. The scene in which Dodd subjects Quell to ‘processing,’ – a ruthlessly personal interrogation designed to unlock past trauma – is a squirming, uncomfortable few minutes of taut close ups and psychological breakdown. Sealing a mutual obsession, it prompts incredulous jealousy from Dodd’s followers, including Dodd’s wife (a brilliantly overbearing Amy Adams), an ever powerful presence who may have a greater role in The Cause than it first appears.
Master, as Dodd is known, clearly sees Quell as an opportunity and a challenge, a malleable puppet and the potential proof of his teaching. But Quell’s fiercely loyal, often violent defence of his mentor masks a deeper uncertainty about The Cause, and by the time Dodd’s son tells Quell “He’s making it all up as he goes along”, The Master risks teetering into inertia. Refusing to wrestle with the veracity or the real implications of The Cause, one begins to question what is underpinning the entire exercise, an ambiguity that, as with Kubrick, will require multiple viewings to unravel.
Pursuing its grand theme, The Master eventually takes Dodd and Quell back to the wild frontier landscapes of There Will Be Blood. A stunning sequence, Anderson has Dodd tell his protégé to fixate on a point in the distance and drive towards it. That point proves to lie in his past, and like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, The Master seems to be evoking America as a nation of people trying to overcome the past, and attempting to use the blank canvas of America to build something new. Wrestling with the meaning of the American Century, it’s a challenge that doesn’t come much bigger. Like America itself, one suspects that only history will prove if Anderson has succeeded.