The 69th Venice film festival felt flat and pallid until The Master rode in and turned it Technicolor.Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic tale of post-war America offers catnip for the senses and succour for the soul, riffing lightly off the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to conjure up a film that is both expansive and intimate, confident and self-questioning. The themes may be contentious, but the handling is perfect. If there were ever a movie to cause the lame to walk and the blind to see, The Master may just be it.Joaquin Phoenix gives a startlingly intense, almost simian performance as Freddie Quell; his back hunched and shoulders sloping, looking for all the world as if he’s only just learned to walk on his hind legs. Quell is home from the war, wild and wonky and set to explode. He can’t hold down a job and his homemade moonshine largely concocted from soap suds and paint thinner tends to poison those who drink it. Then one night, strolling on the wharf, he spies a fairy tale yacht, strung with light bulbs, the stars and stripes flapping. On deck stands the man who will prove his salvation.
Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is rumpled, playful, effortlessly charismatic. A self-styled scholar of the human condition, Dodd comes trailing a gaggle of ex-wives and points the way to the path of enlightenment. When Quell dares to fart in his presence, Dodd scolds the new arrival as a “silly animal” and yet a moment later he joins in with the laughter. Best of all, he can’t get enough of Quell’s toxic hooch. “I’m a connoisseur,” he explains: an early clue that Dodd could turn out to be the greatest snake-oil salesman of them all.The master’s big idea is that science is wrong and the Earth is actually trillions of years old. All those who live on it are like Russian dolls, containing a multitude of past lives and old traumas carried over from previous millennia. Unlock those lives and tend those wounds and the sky’s the limit; you can cure cancer and bring world peace.
Quell believes in the master and has little truck with those who don’t. When a sceptic takes issue with Dodd at a swish New York function, he hurls a piece of fruit at the man, like an ill-trained monkey roused to rage.What a ravishing, unashamedly old-school American classic this is. The Master is lush and strange, conducted at a leisurely pace and yet with barely an ounce of fat on its bones. In the course of a tantalising first hour, Anderson gently establishes the relationship between Dodd and Quell as that of the artist and his clay, the genius and the mascot. Dodd clearly senses that in taming this rude, anguished roustabout he might produce his masterpiece, thereby proving the truth of all his theories.Quell, for his part, seems entirely happy to play the role of Caliban to Dodd’s Prospero at least until the moment he steps on to the porch and catches Dodd’s son dozing in the shade. “He’s making all this up as he goes along,” the young man tells him. “You don’t see that?”
This, reportedly, was the line that enraged Tom Cruise (who appeared in Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia) at a private screening in LA and the one that looks likely to be seized upon: Anderson’s tacit unmasking of the master’s “movement” and, by implication, Scientology itself as a giant fraud, lapped up by the gullible. And yes, no doubt there is some traction to this argument, but it really risks missing the wood for the trees.Instead of setting out to mount an expos of Scientology, Anderson uses it as the springboard to a wider inquiry. Beautifully textured, richly nuanced, The Master probes at the shadows cast by the spotlight of American supremacy. It identifies a strain of self-doubt in an otherwise triumphant 1950s and paints a compelling picture of a postwar prosperity built on the backs of a confused and traumatised people.Dodd’s followers hunger for healing, for answers, for a messiah to lead them. They know there must be more to life than the abundant, wealthy continent they have somehow inherited.
In the end Anderson takes no obvious moral stance on Lancaster Dodd a pedlar of ideas in an America that was always as much of an idea as it was a physical nation. Of course the master is making it up as he goes along. He’s bluffing and experimenting, contradicting himself and making it pay. It is these qualities that link the great thinkers to the great charlatans of history. It’s how the west was won.