Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD was something like cinematic perfection. It had a brutal force, a bravura confidence, an unforgettable visual and aural palette. It was a movie dominated by a charismatic evil man - an Oil Man - a man bending the world to his very will. At times it felt like Paul Thomas Anderson was in step with his on screen persona, throwing the conventions of genre cinema aside, reinventing the grammar of cinema with his disdain for mere dialogue and petty narrative conventions. The bar was set high for THE MASTER. And our prurient interest fuelled by early reports that about the founding of a cult similar to Scientology. It was almost too much for the art-house addict to handle: a take-down of Scientology from our most pioneering and uncompromising director. And one who had directed Tom Cruise in his closest-to-the-bone role in MAGNOLIA.
The result, is sadly, so much less than the sum of its parts. A salutary lesson in what happens when an uncompromising artistic vision ultimately fails in its execution and resolution. A mis-step to be sure. A tragedy, when one considers the nuggets of performance that hint at what this movie could have been.
As the film opens we meet Freddie Quell, a traumatised WWII vet, washed up on the West Coast: alcoholic, sex-obsessed, with an ungovernable temper, a drifter. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, he is quite literally bowed and beaten by life, his shoulders turned inward, his clothes ill-fitting, his face riven by lines, his voice so broken one can barely understand him. It is a brave choice, but an unsuccessful one. Phoenix seems to play "at" his character, rather than inhabiting him. Worse, he seems to be acting in a register - in a movie - entirely different to the other characters in the film.
He meets them after half an hour of drifting, when he jumps on board the luxurious cruise ship of The Master, the cult-leader Lancaster Dodd. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays him as a charismatic bon vivant. We feel that he does love the people he is helping, even if, as the movie progresses, we hear hints that he has been fraudulent - even if, as his son suggests, he is just making it up as he goes along. He certainly cares about Freddie. Indeed he needs Freddie, much to his family's disquiet.
The problem is that the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster isn't as interesting or as sinister a it needs to be to form the centre of the film - perhaps because of Phoenix's bizarre performance - perhaps become of Anderson's weak script. I was far more drawn to the relationship between Lancaster and his wife, Peggy, superbly portrayed by Amy Adams as the most quietly poisonous wife since Winona Ryder's May Archer in Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. There are moments when one believes that it is Peggy who is truly THE MASTER, but those moments are never allowed to open up. Even in a movie of a 145 minute running time, Freddie Quell keeps crowding her out. The way in which Peggy exerts her power is from a chair in the corner, with the subtlest of touches. And it reminds us of how unnerving and profound this movie can be, when it will only be quiet. A similarly memorable scene occurs between Lancaster and his acolyte Helen (Laura Dern). She questions the change of a single word in The Cause's doctrine and is summarily dismissed by Lancaster. To see her face crumple, and his irritation sparked, it is to see the genesis of oppression and a heart breaking.
What else can we say about his strange, long, sometimes beautiful, oftentimes bewildering film? I'm not sure the 65mm photography is really put to good use. There are some gloriously coloured shots of the sea, and of dark rooms from DP Mihai Malaimare Jr (TETRO) but nothing to rival Robert Elswit's fire-drenched skies of THERE WILL BE BLOOD. (How sad that THAT couldn't have been filmed in 65 mil.) I also rather disliked the use of female nudity in this film. I'm far from prudish but was any of this necessary? I also understand that many critics have had problems with the movie's ending, and while I agree, I think this is just symptomatic of far deeper problems.
The sad truth is that Paul Thomas Anderson just didn't know where he was going to take this story, or what his point was. Neither did he have the taste or the courage to recognise that Phoenix's performance was skewering his film.
THE MASTER played Venice, where Paul Thomas Anderson won the Silver Lion, and Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. It also played Hollywood and Toronto 2012. It opened earlier this year in the USA, Canada and Israel. It is on limited release in the UK this week but opens wider in two weeks time. It opens on Nov 9th in Australia and Turkey; on Nov 16th in Chile andd Poland; on Jan 6th in Portugal; Jan 10th in France, Greece, the Netherlands and Norway; on Jan 18th in Iceland; on Jan 31st in Denmark; on Feb 7th in Argentina and Italy; on Feb 15th in Brazil and Russia and on Feb 21st in Germany and Hong Kong.