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New Release Review - The Master

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

WWII veteran Phoenix is taken under the wing of cult leader Hoffman.

When we first meet Phoenix, he's masturbating over the sand sculpture of a curvaceous female figure on a Pacific beach at the end of the war. Returning home to the States sees him drift from job to job, his aggressive temperament preventing him from staying in one place too long. He does appear to be good at two things however: seducing women and making cocktails from whatever liquid materials he can lay his hands on. When he's banished from a farmhand camp for poisoning an elderly co-worker with one of his alcoholic cocktails, he seeks drunken refuge on a large yacht, awakening the next morning to meet Hoffman. Impressed by Phoenix's cocktail skills, Hoffman is happy to have him stick around, introducing him to the philosophy of "the cause" a thinly veiled substitute for Scientology.
After the cinematic excrement that was 'Magnolia', Anderson became a personal hate figure for many. His movies were self-indulgent, plagiaristic and featured bewildering and senseless directorial choices. They were symptomatic of the films of a young man with lots of ideas but no way to turn them into a cohesive whole. In 'The Bad & the Beautiful', a director advises Kirk Douglas against making every scene a climax. Douglas unwisely ignores the advice and shelves the movie he slaved over, declaring it un-watchable. It's a piece of advice Anderson also ignored in his early career, though unfortunately for cinema-goers he neglected to shelve his work. His early films aren't so much movies as cum-shot compilations. 
Film-makers, particularly ones as successful as Anderson, usually have large egos and rarely learn from their mistakes. In 2007, something almost unique in modern cinema occurred, a film-maker matured. Could 'There Will Be Blood', a movie made with the elegance of John Ford, really have come from the petulant boy who gave us 'Boogie Nights'? Anderson had given up trying to imitate unruly seventies cinema and decided to pursue a style closer to the great craftsmen of fifties Hollywood. He continues this journey with 'The Master', and on the evidence so far it's been a fruitful trek. 
Where 'TWBB' paid homage to the tales of rugged individuals once spun by Kazan and Huston, 'The Master' is closer to the portrayals of sensitive troubled men favored by Minnelli and Ray. Essentially the story of a man and his dog, Anderson's film could be the love story of the year. In light of the hammering given to organized religion in his previous film, you would expect the director to go for the jugular of Scientology but this is far from an attack on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the movement. Hoffman is actually quite a lovable character and it's easy to see how he could develop a following. It seems his philosophy is nothing more than a get rich quick scheme to him, though his followers take it much more seriously. If there's a villain of the piece it's his wife, Adams, a dead-eyed dominatrix who believes whole-heartedly in the cause. It reminded me of the high school I attended which was run by the Christian Brothers. I always looked forward to the classes presided over by priests, as they were far more philosophical and intelligent than the gruff shams who called themselves lay teachers. It was the latter who seemed more obsessed with religion, always in an overly-aggressive manner. The priests, on the other hand, seemed like they had chosen the vocation purely because it was the only choice for a sensitive man of letters in mid-twentieth-century Ireland. Like Hoffman, there was always a sense of guilt behind their kindly eyes.
With no direction in his life, Phoenix is the perfect target for a religious conversion. Like Burt Lancaster's sham-preacher in 'Elmer Gantry', he initially devotes himself purely with the intention of getting laid but eventually becomes more fanatical than the rest of his new surrogate family. He becomes Hoffman's bulldog, though it's a position Hoffman is uneasy with. As their friendship grows, Hoffman appears to suffer more and more guilt for crushing the animal instincts of a once truly free man. Most religions tell us the horrid lie that man is not an animal and should be ashamed of his more beastly urges; 'the cause' is no different.
Individually, the two characters are frankly despicable. One exploits others with his physicality, one with his intellect. Together though they bring out the best in one another, each feeding off an admiration of the other's qualities. Watching them playfully wrestling on a manicured lawn is a moment of bliss, a rare celebration of joy in today's cynicism obsessed cinema. The highlight of the film is an impromptu song and dance number in the manner of the "I Love Louisa" segment of Minnelli's 'The Band Wagon'. The makeshift stage, a plush living room, is book-ended by Adams, glaring disapprovingly, and Phoenix, grinning like an idiot as he imagines the females naked. The film will likely be anathema to those raised on the misery and quick cuts of modern cinema, but those who appreciate golden-age Hollywood will find themselves like Phoenix, grinning like an idiot.
8/10
The Master (2012) on IMDb 7.8/10

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