The West

Quest to quell his soul
Quest to quell his soul

The Master (MA15+) 4.5 stars
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
You'll like this if you liked Mr Deeds Goes to Town, A Face in the Crowd, The Apostle, There Will Be Blood, The Tree of Life.

Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film, the 2007 multiple Oscar nominee There Will Be Blood, opened with the most astounding act of willpower in movie history - an agonising sequence in which a badly injured prospector played by Daniel Day-Lewis drags himself out of a pit and across the desert to claim his fortune.

Nothing so physically spectacular happens in The Master, which, despite being described as an epic and originally screened in 70mm, is an intimate drama centred on the tempestuous relationship between an unhinged alcoholic World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) and the charismatic founder of a Scientology-like philosophical movement (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

But the struggle of Phoenix' tortured ex-sailor, Freddie Quell, to remake himself under the guidance of Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is as harrowing and as gripping as the Day-Lewis character's fight to build an oil empire and, indeed, Dodd's own determination to elevate his movement into a religion that has its own bible (penned by himself, naturally) and spans continents.

Both are foundation stories, as is Anderson's porn industry classic Boogie Nights (1997), in which the most important American director under the age of 50 is examining the dysfunction and the despair, the obsession and the megalomania, the lust and the lies, that are in the DNA of the country's defining institutions.

Not that he would make such a claim. Anderson's genius is the way in which he grounds his grand narratives in deeply personal struggles, in this case an enthralling two-hour-plus arm wrestle between two wildly mismatched men who come to depend on each other even as their true natures reveal themselves (a sex-mad hopeless drunk in the case of Freddie, a fraud and a blustery shyster in the case of Lancaster).

In an opening of startling poetry and stunning narrative economy, Anderson plunges us into the hell that is Freddie's soul, showing him on Guam in the closing days of World War II where he's so desperate for booze and sex he makes a deadly concoction out of torpedo fuel and fruit juice and madly humps a woman made out of beach sand.

After the war Freddie re-enters civilian life as a department-store photographer. But his taste for brain-blasting homemade liquor (his specialty is a cocktail made from paint thinner) results in Freddie losing his job, almost killing a fellow worker on a cabbage farm and, after yet another bender, staggering on to a boat docked in San Francisco Bay.

However, rather than tossing him overboard, the man in charge of the boat, the "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher" Lancaster Dodd, takes a shine to Freddie, demanding he make up more of the lethal brew for which he also has a taste.

While all the other members of the movement on the New York-bound boat are appalled by the boozy, lecherous Freddie, including Dodd's waspish pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd sees something in the volatile, almost animalistic alcoholic and makes him his project (indeed, the name of the incipient cult is The Cause).

In the first of several "processing" sessions that are the heart of the movie Dodd forces Freddie to open up about his traumatic past, to travel back in time in order that he purge his most troubling memories and emerge as a more perfect human being.

This first encounter is a tour de force and sets the tone for the rest of the movie, with Hoffman both grandiloquent and relentless and Phoenix- who, through the whole movie, all but twists his emaciated body into a pretzel of pain, tension and repression - fighting to crawl out of the hole where he's spent his whole life. Expect Oscar nominations for both actors.

Indeed, Dodd, for all his crackpot theories about liberation through recalling experiences of past lives, actually does Freddie some good (how much good is, like the rest of the movie, open to interpretation), which is why The Master is no anti- Scientology muckraking exercise.

The parallels to L. Ron Hubbard are certainly there and Anderson, in one of the film's key scenes, reveals that Dodd has been making things up as he goes along. But there's genuineness in Dodd's love for Freddie and his determination to tame the beast inside the man who represents a side of postwar America rarely seen.

The Master is not easy viewing. But its force gathers like a hurricane, and its initial seemingly anarchic mysteries gradually shape themselves into an enthralling depiction of a country where the damaged and the demagogues are unholy allies.

The West Australian

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