Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Master, dir/wr. Paul Thomas Anderson, st. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

I feel for the woman that strode purposefully from the cinema auditorium sometime during The Master's opening twenty minutes, for P. T. Anderson's latest is baffling, claustrophobically intoxicating and hypnotic. It's the cinematic equivalent of tempering the most intense migraine with Ibuprofen Lysine, the knotty tension of perception giving way to exquisite visual bliss. Joaquin Phoenix, in a terrifyingly articulate portrayal of imbalance and trauma, his slurred drawl and heavy eyelids recalling Ted Levine's dangerous and louche Jame Gumb in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, plays Freddie Quell (named as it turns out, not without a sense of irony), a WWII veteran crippled with PTSD and an addiction to gals and booze. Stowing away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), a physician of sorts, philosopher and psychological-alchemist who's building his own movement known as 'The Cause', and soon the pair form a fragile master/padawan relationship, driven as they both are by their ability to concoct from whatever's lying around - Freddie from paint thinner and bread, Lancaster from all manner of hazy new-age self-help mysticism. Anderson has stated The Master isn't strictly about Scientology but any number of crackpot religions and groups that sprung up all over the US after WW2, but the similarities are there, hiding in plain sight. One man's 'processing' is another man's 'auditing' after all. Again, like in 1999's superb Magnolia, Anderson employs long passages of rhythmic, tonal drone-score with which to underpin vast sequences - here, using Jonny Greenwood as he did in There Will Be Blood. An early scene with Quell and Dodd has the latter 'processing' the former with one of his 'sequences' - a barrage of questions that would flummox Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, ranging from the inane to the inflammatory, with an immediate restart if one blinks.  The effect is startling, unsettling, wholly absorbing and more than a little frightening. But there's a poetry to proceedings that makes Anderson such a unique and artful director. We can all name great visual auteurs or ones who coax wonderful performances from their actors or who can spin a great yarn, but Anderson does all three, and to a level of complexity and detail that simply astounds.