The Master

The Master, once seen as a contender for the highest grossing art-house film of all time, saw its star Joaquin Phoenix blow his Oscar hopes by recently calling the Academy Awards ‘bullshit’. Though in many ways triumphant, these aren’t the film’s only disappointments, writes NANCY NAPPER CANTER.

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It didn’t quite live up to its hype.

The Master focuses on Freddy (Joaquin Phoenix), a US Navy member demobilized at the end of the Second World War. Alcoholic, sex-obsessed, compulsive, Freddy responds to the ‘responsibilities of peacetime’ with irresponsibility and violence. When he wakes up to find himself in a cushy yacht with no memory of climbing aboard the night before, Freddy meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the ship’s commander. And The Master.

The Master is leader of ‘The Cause’ – a movement dedicated to a process of ‘de-hypnotization’, which Lancaster insists can cure men of ills psychological and physical. In the deranged miscreant Freddy, Dodd finds an irresistible project – and something like a friend. The relationship between them – fuelled by Freddy’s toxic alcoholic concoctions – sees the film evolve into a sort of twisted bromance.

Hoffman is an expert at oily charm – think Freddy in The Talented Mr Ripley – and it is The Master’s breed of charismatic smarminess that sustains his tyranny. A natural figurehead, Lancaster is good at getting people clapping; good at giving speeches; good at aphorisms. But he’s terrible at taking criticism. The first scene in which Lancaster is confronted by a doubter is fantastically tense – all the more so because Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant (and near constant) orchestral score is – like the people in the room – momentarily silenced.

But Phoenix is the star. Hunched, gaunt, hands on small of back, Phoenix gives an insidious depiction of derangement. Whether viciously slapping his own face in frustration, or smashing a toilet in a prison cell, Phoenix’s mixture of awkwardness and agility makes the violence particularly engrossing. He’s also excellent at puerile – when a fart makes Freddy giggle, many in the audience joined in.

The cinematography is superb. Anderson’s wonderful wide, sustained shot of Freddy fleeing through a cabbage field is simply beautiful, and it’s just as mesmerising when the camera zooms in. Amy Adams as Lancaster’s wife Mary Sue – sweet on the outside, steely on the inside – provides one of the most powerful close-ups. As Mary, enraged by a doubter, argues for a plan of attack, the effect is all the more frightening because we’re close enough to her furious face to see make-up smudges. When, elsewhere, Anderson teases us with shots in which we’re denied full visibility (often keeping characters out of shot or obscured) it’s also very effective – and alienating.

The film intends to alienate. But there’s a fine line between alienation and boredom, a line that, here, is sometimes crossed. I think the slight tedium was borne of a lack of empathy. Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd has been compared with Tom Cruise’s cult leader Frank Mackey in Magnolia – inevitable given the resemblances between The Cause and Scientology (Hoffman’s never looked more like Ron Hubbard). But by virtue of his pathos, Mackey is by far the more memorable character. And while Freddy had moments of pathos in the first half, these became sparse as the film went on. Increasingly, the relationship between the two men left me cold, rather than engrossed. There Will Be Blood didn’t strike me as slow-moving. The second half of this did.

Stylistically, this is an absolute triumph, and Phoenix’s performance truly haunting. But since I went in expecting a five star film, I left feeling disappointed.