This ‘cult’ classic has the makings of a masterpiece

The master is the long-awaited work from Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director of Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007). While the film has been referred to endlessly as ‘a scientology film’, such expectations will not serve you well. The film is best experienced on its own terms. It’s not an easy film to categorise and that’s no bad thing, since it’s easily one of the richest, most visually arresting, emotionally layered and intellectually engaging films of recent times. 

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a traumatised Second World War navy veteran who finds his reintegration into civilised society a great challenge. To simply exist is not enough; he craves intensity and his means of acquiring it are all self-destructive, bringing violence upon himself and others, whether it’s brawling with clients or poisoning his liquor with turpentine. One day he happens upon a party of revellers aboard a canal boat and finds one man seemingly capable of ordering his chaotic energies and giving some form of purpose to his life. That man is Lancaster Dodd (Seymour-Hoffman), a writer, a nuclear physicist and philosopher, but primarily, in his own words, a man. Perhaps Dodd fills the dominating, all-encompassing structure that life aboard a navy vessel once provided him. Dodd also commands an unquestioning loyalty, in much the same way military service might.

Phoenix and Hoffman provide powerhouse performances, Phoenix in particular recalls the abundant untamed energies of a young Jack Nicholson . Dodd’s character is unmistakably modelled on scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, but the film is, at its core, universally applicable as a study in the exploitation of vulnerable peoples, power play and the cyclical nature of subjugation. 

The parting effect is one of intoxication. I immediately wanted more – and initially became frustrated that there was no more. Yet the luxuriant quality of the film’s every aspect, from the gorgeous technicolor hues of Anderson’s dreamy floating camera to the flawlessly nuanced performances, will encourage you to reassess what you have seen and perhaps rewatch the film. The experience will likely stay with you for a long time.

The Master

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson; US drama, 2012, 137 mins; Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Premieres January 31
Playing nationwide