The Master vs. The Animal
Less an exploration of cultism and more of the animalism in human nature, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master tackles such unanswerable questions beautifully, but incompletely. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, the instinctual, basest war veteran who meets Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, spiritual leader of The Cause and all-round egotistical maniac. Dodd is a man on a self-appointed quest to save Quell's and the wider more naive public's soul. Like all Anderson films, the characterisations are among the most frightening and original to date; Phoenix plays Quell with such fierce and humane brutality, it is the most engaging element in The Master and well deserving of the Oscar nod. Though the antagonism between these two is at the film's centre point, due to a lack of direction, it doesn't engage as wholly as it could have done and fizzles well short of the 2 hour runtime.
Where the film does play out well, is in its more absurd and manic moments. The interplay between the cinematography and Jonny Greenwood's score frame the action uniquely; recreating a picturesque 50's and fantasising Quell's transient life. From seamen brawling on a sunlit shore, to Quell fleeing a cabbage farm at dawn to Dodd flying across the desert on a motorcycle, each shot could standalone as an historic photo from the period. The dialogue also lends the film a bizarrely dark tone; with Quell's crass observations thrown up against Dodd's self-involved eloquence; the conversations seem almost unintelligible. The end results are fascinating sequences of violence, as Phoenix physically dominates the actors around him as he struggles to reconcile Dodd's spiritual advice with his own animal nature.
The idea of animalism is brought up frequently by Dodd himself throughout the film. The Cause, while never fully explained, seems to centre around the idea of dominating the animal kingdom and society at large and lifting yourself above it. He frequently chastises Quell for drinking, swearing, fucking and fighting, as he claims these natural behaviours are beneath him. In this motif, The Master is as much about civility as spirituality. Dodd's world is populated with the aristocratic, the wealthy and the upper-class, and as he drags Quell through this world of success and money, he brings with him a wake of destruction; physically as well as emotionally for Quell himself. Though much discussion is made on the subject, it is ultimately unanswerable and the film doesn't raise as many insightful arguments as it possibly could have.
The film is fascinating as a piece of visual and aural cinema, a series of deftly composed shots and pieces of music that hold your attention when the script's lack of direction lets you down. That being said, it calls for a second viewing, as you do get the sense that there is a message hidden deep within its framework, and the scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are just too transfixing to write off with the rest of the film's inconsistencies.