By Noah Kidron-Style
LONDON – Looking down the list of nominees for Academy Awards, I was struck yet again by the incomprehensible absence of Paul Thomas Anderson, and his sensational epic The Master, from tonight’s proceeding.
Perhaps it was damaged in the often-conservative eyes of the Academy by Anderson’s unwillingness to tell you what to think about central characters Freddy Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Certainty as the credits rolled, it was possible to hear half of the audience muttering that it was the worst film they had ever seen, while the other half elegized that it may well have been the best.
The Master follows veteran Freddy Quell as he tries to cope after the end of the Second World War. Quell is an alcoholic sociopath, unable to hold down a job and surely on the path to self-destruction until he finds Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic cult leader who claims to know the truth about the human condition.
Having been taken under Dodd’s wing, Quell becomes a loyal disciple of the cause. He is quick to attack anyone who expressed doubt, and is vicious towards non-believers.
With his intense sexual frustration, an absent father and a previous relationship with an aunt, Quell is a veritable petri dish for Freudian analysis. His relationship with Dodd can also be expressed in Freudian terms – Dodd the ego, Quell the id, and Dodd’s wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams, the super-ego.
When seen from this light, the film appears to be a Freudian analysis of scientology, the religion (or cult) for which psychoanalysis is the enemy.
Not that it is necessary to watch The Master as a philosophy lecture. With an incredible cast, including three brilliant lead performances, of which the relatively unheralded Adams stole the show (although she will doubtless lose out to the crowd-pleasing Anne Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress), The Master is affecting and shocking throughout.
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
The cinematography, also bizarrely not nominated (I am beginning to sound like a broken record), is spectacular, a homage to the classic Hitchcock style but with an immersive depth of light and color. It is truly beautiful film.
Anderson promised a film about Scientology, but as ever, delivered much, much more. It probes at the culture of American supremacy, never taking a moral stance, and leaves us wondering whether Quell was better off before he met Dodd or if he was saved by the charismatic charlatan.
In the final scene, Quell abandons Dodd for an anonymous hookup with a British girl at a bar. In brutally graphic detail Anderson tells us the truth at the heart of any film inspired by Freud – it’s all about sex.
The Master is not for everyone, but for fans of Anderson, it is an unmissable work. The Academy’s snub is not surprising – their fear of controversy and complexity is increasingly worrying – but The Master will be remembered notwithstanding.