Film review | The Master – Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman go head to head for an epic tussle

The Master - Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell & Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd

Paul Thomas Anderson, maker of the dazzling epic There Will Be Blood, has come up with another sprawling period drama and it’s a film that will probably enthral and infuriate viewers in equal measure.

Indeed, while watching The Master, it’s quite possible you will be enthralled and infuriated at the same time – a reaction that’s all too appropriate for a story that deals in emotional and psychological turbulence.

This turmoil lies at the heart of the film as Anderson explores the fraught relationship between a surrogate father and son in the years immediately following World War II, one a deeply damaged US Navy veteran, the other the charismatic founder of a pseudo-scientific cult called ‘The Cause’.

THE MASTER - AMY ADAMS, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN and JILLIAN BELL

Joaquin Phoenix’s sailor turned drifter, Freddie Quell, comes into the orbit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd after he stows away on the yacht that is taking the guru and his family and followers on a fund-raising tour. ‘I do many, many things,’ Hoffman’s Dodd loftily declares on their first meeting. ‘I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher.’

Clearly modelled on Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, who made similarly grandiose assertions, Dodd also claims to be able to cure humanity’s ills by unlocking past lives that go back in time over trillions of years. His theories are seducing increasing numbers of well-heeled, gullible converts, but what better proof of their efficacy than to heal the damaged soul of a man like Freddie, his mind addled by childhood and wartime traumas, and by the lethal alcoholic cocktails he concocts from the likes of paint thinner and darkroom chemicals?

The Master - Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell

The meeting of Freddie and Dodd is equally combustible, and so is the collision between the contrasting acting styles of Phoenix and Hoffman. Feral, hunched, his face like a clenched fist, Phoenix’s Freddie is inarticulate and blocked where Hoffman’s Dodd is extravagant, loquacious and smooth, although Dodd’s sudden eruptions of anger suggests a possible kinship between them beneath the skin.

The quality of the performances alone makes The Master compelling viewing (and Phoenix and Hoffman are superbly matched by Amy Adams in the role of Dodd’s quietly steely wife), but on the basis of a single viewing, I can’t yet tell whether the film – somehow both opaque and obvious, literal and elusive  – amounts to anything more than a showcase for great acting and a series of spellbinding set-piece scenes. It’s easy to see through The Cause. As for The Master, I’m still not sure.

In cinemas from Friday 9th November.

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