Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
There are these nervy, gut fits of laughter coming out of you when you watch something as good as The Master. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a movie, of course, and it doesn’t even have to be a particularly appropriate moment. Your normal senses are just swept away by the sheer awe-inspiring brilliance of what you see. It came two minutes into The Master for me, when I saw Joaquin Phoenix’s stooping figure over a group of sailors beach-sculpting sandy forms of a female Phoenix’s character is about to dry hump. Nothing remotely funny about that moment, and yet your laughter is your admiration.
Set in the post-war times, the film tells of a WW2 veteran, Freddie Quell, alcohol and sex addict who’s suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a viciously great performance from Phoenix (Daniel Day-Lewis has just been given his dues at the Oscars, but for me Phoenix was in a league of his own – what he is doing here is absolutely out of this world) as well as the rest of the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, of course, formidable in the role of Lancaster Dodd, the leader (the Master) of a philosophical cult called “The Cause”, as is Amy Adams, Dodd’s devoted, willful wife.
Quite by chance, Freddie, a hopelessly sick and traumatized individual haunted by lost love and troubled past, gets right in the midst of it all. There’s senseless worshipping, there are lies, and yet Freddie is too weak to resist. The relationship between Dodd and Freddie is really what’s at the heart of this film (there’s one particular prison scene that has more to say about religion than any book by Richard Dawkins – no offence, I love Richard Dawkins): it’s odd, disturbing and strangely magnetic, and discloses a lot about inner cells and private prisons. And it has much to say about just how the world operates. Any political system and any society.
As ever, Paul Thomas Anderson’s gutsy filmmaking is both heavy and beautifully subtle. There is a constant feeling here that this is the real stuff. However good your other favourites from 2012 may be, The Master just turns them into sand. For me, this is an even bigger triumph than There Will Be Blood, and that’s saying a lot. I almost feel embarrassed about not making this my number one film of 2012, but that’s only because on a rare occasion ‘brain good’ can be beaten by ‘raving madness good’.