Complete A-Z list

Master, The


Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty, Kevin J O'Connor, Patty McCormack, Ambyr Childers, Jennifer Neala Page

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

This epic-length drama, set in the years following WW2, certainly has aspirations to grandeur, as underlined by its carefully-composed, often low-angle shots and long pauses. But, despite a couple of excellent performances, its content is flimsy for the runtime, and its plotlines don't lead to any satisfying conclusions. You may find yourself asking 'Is that all?' at the end.

But there's no denying the pain felt by embittered, recently-demobbed sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix, looking like the older Montgomery Clift), whose explosive temper (fuelled by bitterness at the aimlessness of his life) and liking for brewing lethal alcoholic mixtures leads him to lose jobs as a store photographer and even cabbage-picker.

Perpetually drunk and obsessed with sex (little of which he seems to get) and the memory of an unfulfilled relationship with a childhood sweetheart Doris (Beaty, in scenes for which Phoenix seems too old), he's drawn, after lurching through life to 1950, to a light-filled ship in the harbour.

Waking to find himself a stowaway, he's taken to meet Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), whose daughter (Childers) has just got married on board, and becomes involved with The Cause, a cult run by Dodd (the eponymous Master) , whose principal strength lies in hypnotising people and taking them back into the past.

The Master, who refers to his 'religion' as 'the word of one man' and has written a tome on the subject, turns out to have just as short a fuse as Freddie, though without the violent consequences. He's determined to 'cure' the latter's pain, although Freddie continues to beat to a pulp anyone who denounces his new mentor as a charlatan.

Meanwhile, Dodd's pregant wife (Adams) remains sceptical about Freddie's value to The Cause.

Hoffman, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the older Citizen Kane, remains a commanding presence throughout, even surviving scenes in which his lady followers suddenly appear nude at a party, and when Book Two of his 'life's work' turns out to be buried in a box in the desert.

Adams is terrific, even when talking dirty to Phoenix (whose dialogue is often difficult to hear - but then he is supposed to be tipsy most of the time) for no good reason I could discern.

Make of all this what you will. Is the director trying to pull the wool over our eyes, blinding us with style over substance much in the manner of The Master himself? Only time - and perhaps the Oscar-voters - will tell.

David Quinlan

USA 2012. UK Distributor: Entertainment. Colour by deluxe.
138 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 3.

Review date: 29 Oct 2012