Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams • Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson • Age restriction: 16LSVN • Releases 21 December
There is very little in the way of easy viewing in The Master, a taught and often disturbing film from There Will Be Blood filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson.
Set in post-World War II America, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell - a former Navy seaman completely at odds with the rest of the world around him. He's a drifter and a heavy drinker - concocting his own brews out of whatever he can find (photography materials, torpedo fluid etc) - and has immense trouble restraining his temper. When it finally seems as though he can fall no lower, Freddie finds himself aboard a ship carrying Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - the leader of the enigmatic "Cause", to which inescapable comparisons to Scientology have been made. Freddie becomes Dodd's pet project - much to the distaste of Dodd's overbearing and blindly fanatical wife (Amy Adams).
The Master is mainly a focus on character - particularly Freddie's manic, almost insane behaviour - and the lead trio of Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams provide stellar performances. But it is Phoenix who is the supernova of this film - painfully thin, almost unintelligible at times, erratic and hyper-sexualised to the extreme. His performance, brilliant as it is, is almost excruciating to watch - and he is balanced by Hoffman's equally disturbing - albeit in a different way - performance as Dodd. Hoffman's character is mercurial - never anything but dangerous underneath his assumed charm. More lethal still is Adams' character Peggy - and between the three of them, they seem guaranteed to notch up awards nominations this season.
Anderson's film is brilliant but designed to be uncomfortable - never quite giving the viewer time to let their guard down, and turning scenes that could be familiar into scenes that set my hair on end. An opening shot of churning water leads to a disturbing scene of an animalistic Phoenix simulating sex with a woman made of sand; a seemingly-friendly game of wrestling between Dodd and Freddie, shot from a wide angle across the lawn, feels somehow on the brink of danger; a wild motorcycle ride across the desert seems destined for disaster.
The Master is also a wonderful period piece - from the clothes to the sets, which themselves are as erratic as the characters they house, from the grandest of American homes to the dingiest motels. It echoes the spirit of the generation and its icons: the inherent restlessness of Jack Kerouac, the rebelliousness and swagger of Marlon Brando.
Above all, The Master is a powerful commentary on both society and the individual - the need for acceptance, belonging, a figure to look up to: particularly in the time shortly after war, where so many broken young men returned to a country that had no idea what to do with them all - all focused through the bare emotion of Freddie's character. But due to its rawness, the film becomes too overbearing at times, and feels suffocating and unattainable for a wider audience. There are some scenes that will shock you both mentally and physically - this is audacious filmmaking, and definitely not for sensitive viewers.
If you're looking for a popcorn-flick, The Master is not it. It is designed to shock, designed to probe, and is one of the most talked-about films of the year, with good reason.