Paul Thomas Anderson could never be accused of under ambition.
But even by his standard of vaulting aspiration, The Master (over) reaches.
Not since Apocalypse Now has a masterpiece of American cinema been so bold and imposing yet so riddled with flaws; not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has a major production revelled in such intoxicating, infuriating opacity. Is it any wonder the conservative Academy snubbed The Master in the categories of Picture, Directing and Original Screenplay?
Like its titular character Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic figure who describes himself as “…a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all… a hopelessly inquisitive man”, The Master is a mass of contradictions.
It is an epic tale of post-war America and a two-hander chamber piece. A study of familial dysfunction and a homoerotic love story. An investigation of evangelical self-belief born in an age of prosperity and an exposé of a nation’s neuroses.
It is not, as many supposed before release, a critique of Scientology, though Dodd owes much to L. Ron Hubbard and some mesmerising, discombobulating scenes set aboard a travelling steamship bring to mind the Church’s Freewinds vessel.
The Master starts, aptly enough, with a shot of the churning, unknowable sea, then shows us sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he manically humps a woman-shaped sandcastle and glugs torpedo fuel to get drunk.
Rotated back to the US, this gurning, mumbling misfit works a couple of jobs, both ending in violence, before stumbling upon a glimmering steamship.
It is here he meets Dodd, a leader/pioneer/charlatan who recalls both Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from Anderson’s previous movie There Will Be Blood, and Magnolia’s snake-oil sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise).
Dodd is the leader of The Cause, a religious cult that believes in past lives. Only by ‘processing’ - an interrogation technique not dissimilar to psychoanalysis - can the traumas suffered in previous existences be healed.
Though shot on 65mm and screened, cinemas permitting, in 70mm, The Master is undiminished on disc: most scenes are interiors as Dodd peddles his Cause from New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix, and Anderson is more interested in the dynamic between Dodd and star pupil Freddie than deluxe landscapes.
Less hyperactive and/or explosive than PTA’s other pictures, this, his sixth, casts a woozy, disquieting spell, its abstract visuals, oblique narrative and ambiguous climax further complicated by Johnny Greenwood’s swoony, agitated, demented score.
Never mind a second viewing - The Master is a film to withstand many, its secrets and subtexts (a mirror to Hollywood with its false dreams?) sure to be teased out over future years. Do these two men remain in stasis, as some critics have complained?
Has Freddie become the master? Does Dodd live vicariously through his untutored, impetuous protégé or is he in love with him? Is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), really pulling the strings, for though her dialogue scenes are few she periodically haunts the edges of the frame.
And is it actually jealousy and homophobia - a charge consistently levelled at the Church of Scientology, not least by Crash director Paul Haggis when he quit in 2009 - that leads her to call for Freddie’s ostracism?
The questions are endless, the answers few and many.
What is apparent is that Anderson’s one-of-a-kind film, though long, repetitive and frequently threatening to squirm from his grasp, serves up dazzling scene after dazzling scene, with each fresh solution swaddled in a deepening mystery.
(Extras unavailable, though the inclusion of John Huston’s poignant doc about returning WW2 vets, Let There Be Light, is welcome – not least because PTA borrowed lines of dialogue from it.)