If art is judged on its ability to provoke debate, then Paul Thomas Anderson makes great art.
From his eye-catching 1997 portrait of the adult entertainment industry, ‘Boogie Nights’, which reinvigorated Mark Wahlberg’s screen fortunes, to the bombast of ‘There Will Be Blood’, featuring Daniel Day Lewis, the Californian writer-director has consistently challenged us.
With ‘The Master’, Anderson has incurred the wrath of the Church of Scientology, which has campaigned vociferously against this emotionally wrought tale of a cult leader welcoming a new recruit into the fold.
What follows is an overlong demonstration of virtuoso film-making that is by turns dazzling and boorishly pretentious.
Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the figurehead of a burgeoning philosophical movement known as The Cause.
His followers grow in number in drawing rooms across America and Lancaster is delighted to welcome alcoholic war veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) into the fold as his “guinea pig and protégé”, despite the warnings of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams).
She is the thrust behind her husband’s arguments.
“We should attack,” she counsels. “If we don’t attack we will never dominate our environment the way we should.”
Peggy recognises Freddie as a damaged and emotionally volatile soul and tries to curb his dangerous impulses.
“You cannot stay with us any more unless you quite boozing,” she decrees.
However, that primal rage which percolates inside Freddie proves useful for Lancaster as he encounters resistance to his argument and even scorn from his own son (Jesse Plemons).
“He’s making this all up as he goes along – you can’t see that?” the boy asks Freddie.
‘The Master’ is distinguished by its performances.
Phoenix’s unswerving commitment to his role is undeniable.
At times, he drifts through scenes in a drowsy stupor, incomprehension flickering in his eyes as he searches for salvation.
In other scenes, rage explodes, most notably in a police cell when he repeatedly slams his naked shoulders against the cast iron frame of a bed frame with enough force not just to split skin but to fracture bone as well.
Hoffman is charismatic as the leader, who may or may not hold all of the answers, shepherding his flock until a non-believer dares to question his vision in front of his disciples and punctures the bubble of superiority that envelops him.
“If you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask?” he snaps with irritation, tossing in a potty-mouthed insult for good measure.
For Lancaster, swearing evidently is both big and clever.
Adams will also be vying for Oscar consideration for her steely supporting performance as the power behind the throne.
Anderson’s film is easy to admire for its ambition and directorial verve, but hard to worship for the protracted sequences of pointlessness that test our patience far beyond breaking point.
Star Rating: 3/5