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15 Nov 12
The Master

Over the course of five films, Paul Thomas Anderson has provoked and captivated audiences with his tapestries of American life. The Master, a 1950s-set psychodrama, is arguably his most radical film to date. It is also his most perplexing.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a demobbed G.I. and troubled individual whose chance meeting with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic guru, offers him salvation from his rootlessness and destructive urges. Lancaster claims to understand Freddie's torment. They are, after all, alike. as he tells Freddie, "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you". Lancaster's cure for society's ills is the 'Process' – a rigorous examination of an individual's life, beginning with their recent history, then returning to experiences in their mother's womb and the lives lived prior their current incarnation. According to Lancaster, we have existed for millions of years and our present physical being is merely a shell that holds our true self. Freedom comes from embracing this truth and expunging the negative radicals in our bodies that prevent us achieving a perfect state. This might sound vaguely familiar.

The Master is loosely based the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. It is not a biography. Some may be disappointed it is neither an exposé of nor a satire on the organisation that began calling itself a religion following the publication of Hubbard's 'Scientology, a religious philosophy' in 1953. Scientology is to The Master what the porn industry was to Boogie Nights (1997) – a backdrop to an exploration of the lives and motivations of the characters Anderson creates. Moreover, motivational gurus and the road to individual betterment are a regular feature of Anderson's films, from Philip Baker Hall's Vegas sharpster inHard Eight (1996) and Tom Cruise's lifestyle coach in Magnolia (1999) to the journey taken by Adam Sandler's violence- prone loner in Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

The heart of The Master, its grist, lies in the battle of wills between the two men. Freddie is humanity in its primal form; his physicality is feral and uninhibited by society's norms. Lancaster is no less prone to violent outbursts. However, unlike his charge's raging, they are controlled and directed. Only once, when both men are incarcerated in adjacent jail cells, does Lancaster's anger get the better of him. In that moment we see what bonds these men; the peripatetic loner and lionised speaker may seem worlds apart – two very different animals – but in truth, they are opposing sides of the same coin.

In Anderson's liberal adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 'Oil!', There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday are defined and made complete by the presence of the other, their mutual animosity notwithstanding. The Master follows suit. To Freddie, Lancaster is the rock he can moor himself to, whilst for Lancaster, Freddie's peripatetic drifter is humanity in the raw, material he believes he can shape to his will. If Daniel and Eli are as fixed as the land they plunder their wealth from, Freddie and Lancaster shift and turn like the vast ocean waters that are the film's recurring motif. Their undulating relationship, with its crests and troughs, is what makes The Master so compelling.

 

Ian Haydn Smith
AFF English Daily Editor 

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