“Is God dead?” For some atheists he never lived, but our film idols did. And when the director you worship dies how do you begin to replace him? Like religion there’s a good deal of choice on offer: Romanek, Audiard, Haneke, Nolan, Ramsay, Tarantino, but one shouldn’t be hurried into making a rash decision. Their talents are undeniable but when your deity is Stanley Kubrick the problem becomes ever more complex; how do you substitute the one true cinematic God for one of his children?
When Paul Thomas Anderson destroyed the competition with “There Will Be Blood” in 2007 there could be no hesitation. A wrathful picture cast down from the Old Testament featured the greatest actor in the world, Daniel Day Lewis in his greatest role, the oil soaked demon Daniel Plainview. The prehistoric opening of Anderson’s film evoked the “Dawn of Time” from “2001” and its absurd, horrendous climax, “Barry Lyndon” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Anderson the youthful wunderkind had transformed himself into a Kubrickian tyrant. Now would “The Master” cement Anderson’s newfound mythical status or debunk it?
How does humanity recover from the trauma of the Second World War? From the panzers to the atomic bomb, mankind did his best to obliterate God from the planet. Discharged from US Navy, Freddie Quell is physically and mentally shot to pieces. Addicted to sex and his 1000% proof hooch, he is a man being sucked inside out by his own liver. Quell will drink anything from torpedo juice to developing fluid as he leers from one disastrous job to the next. He is a meth-stained shark prowling the West Coast, his angular posture similar to a sharpened Popeye. Joaquin Phoenix’s Quell is at once impenetrable and totally transparent, warped by war but moulded in peace. There’s plenty to despise in him but enough mystery to keep us intrigued.
The itinerant Freddie stows aboard a ship oblivious to long-shot charisma of Lancaster Dodd the heart and soul of the party on deck. Dodd is the self-styled “Master” of the pseudo scientific cult known as “The Cause”. He’s a hypnotic personality, charm personified into the body of an Orson Welles impersonator. L Ron Hubbard shines from beneath his twinkling eyes but is “The Cause” Scientology by any other name or just another foolhardy but well-intentioned attempt to replace God and make sense of a self-inflicted catastrophe? Philip Seymour Hoffman has Dodd tower above his company with dreams of world peace but his trillion-year history of mankind is just as preposterous as the six thousand years claimed by the Creationists.
Freddie awakes from a dream and is taken under Dodd’s wing. “You have wandered from the proper path,” says Lancaster in fatherly, hushed tones. Does he see his younger lost self in Freddie, the base “animal” that Dodd tries to smother with the pretence of cultured academia? Freddie is bewitched, beholden to the luminous “Master” violently defending him like an attack dog when Dodd’s dubious claims fail to hold up to the slightest scrutiny. Does any religion?
Fearful of her husband’s new protégé Lancaster’s latest wife Peggy inflicts numerous “applications” on Freddie, preposterous exercises in futility and Pavlovian obedience. These are clearly downloaded from their imagination onto a living breathing hand-held device-Freddie is their amusement wasting his hours on pointless activities. Amy Adams as Peggy gradually emerges as the cold intelligence that binds “The Cause” together, to repel the non-believers and barricade the weak Dodd into his final Overlook Hotel style retreat. Peggy’s drive is that of an unflinching Lady Macbeth and it finally sees Dodd rich, self-sufficient and free from the travelling circus that saw him go cap in hand to the New York intelligentsia and Philadelphian benefactors.
Shot in 70mm by Mihai Malaimare, “The Master” holds a clear, grand lens to post-war America whilst Jonny Greenwood’s score snakes under scenes, over shots and through dialogue to undermine its flimsy integrity. As much as Dodd tried to elevate “The Cause” with his philosophical gobbledegook, the trappings of rampant consumerism always surround him. Capitalism not bombs or cults will be the slayer of religion and Dodd like so many before and after will drain the money from fools and kings alike. Maybe Dodd did believe in “The Cause” but Peggy only believes in the material it creates. Is she, like capitalism the real “Master”? Or is it Freddie free from guilt and morality, a womaniser and boozer unafraid of whom he hurts-or is “The Master” his and our addictions?
“The Master” cannot match the satanic majesty of “There Will Be Blood” Phoenix and Hoffman as brave as their performances were never going to counter the ferocity of Day-Lewis’ Plainview. Anderson is in his second phase of filmmaking now and “The Master” has the feel of that difficult second album. Yet Anderson is starting from such a sublime level of creativity and directorial genius that “The Master” still outstrips all American movies with its ability to beguile and haunt at every turn. “Is God dead?” No, he continues to live long after we have left the darkness of the dream house.