Baptism of fire

Male leads turn in scorching performances in soul-searching character study

Nothing in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master matches the freakish intensity of the milkshake moment at the end of There Will Be Blood, but here's another strange, affecting character study whose quivers come off from the acting: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix holding court, while Amy Adams, gentle yet febrile, lighting a fire of neurosis and mystery from the fringe.

Soul searching: Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell in The Master .

Like Anderson's Magnolia, with Tom Cruise as a cultish leader, and like There Will Be Blood, with its dual-core magnetism of the master-disciple death match led by Daniel Day-Lewis, the new film is a sombre showcase of American soul in a baptism of fire, with salvation on offer but never realised. That the character played by Hoffman is based on the founder of Scientology is much cited, but that's hardly the point (especially to us here) because the real focus is the man played by Phoenix, a World War II wreck who wanders the country like a cadaver looking for his own grave. Or for a rebirth, which probably amounts to the same thing anyway.

Phoenix is Freddie Quell, and we see him work the underbelly of an American battleship in the Pacific as the war ends. Quell, as designed, calibrated and manifested by Phoenix, is a muttering, stooping, gruffily growling sailor shipwrecked by the past we merely sense but not see.

When the end of war is announced, Quell celebrates by drinking the lubricant from the ship's torpedo. We'll soon see that the man has a gift for concocting fiery moonshine from all sorts of dubious liquids, natural and chemical; he's more than a booze wizard, he's booze himself, the kind of man who doesn't actually need drugs because he is drugs.

Stowed away on a steamship heading to New York through the Panama Canal, Quell meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), "a writer, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher". Or actually, the megalomaniacal, bewitching, mellifluent founder of a new-age sect called The Cause, who urges his followers to find their pre-natal memories and the auguring of another life. Dodd loves attention, but more than that he loves the sound of his own voice, and through Hoffman's detailed performance, we know that the master progressively begins to believe in what he's saying, goaded on by the coterie of rich East Coast patrons and, principally, his wife Peggy (Adams), a sweet, docile housewife who slowly reveals her true role in the movement. As in most families, this one is fronted by a man but run by a woman.

Quell finds, or believes he can find, the family he never had with Dodd and co. The convert becomes a fanatic, and like most fanatics he doesn't even understand what The Cause is all about. But the film isn't about The Cause (or by implication, Scientology); it's a portrait of an anguished soul in the manner of Faulkner's stories and Scorsese's early films. Anderson's writing tends towards the brooding and obscure, while his camerawork has a kind of precise fluidity _ watch the outdoor scene in the desert.

But what we'll watch this film for is scenes where Quell and Dodd are put in a room together, the master and his guinea pig, his rottweiler, his muse, his confirmation _ the circus ringmaster and the untrained animal. The first "processing", when Dodd interviews Quell in a boat cabin, is enough to land both actors on any nomination list, with Phoenix, in a delirious shift between understatement and overstated fluster, summoning the greatness of Brando, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and yet charging forth with his own wattage (it's on the bookies' board: the Oscar race will be between him and Day-Lewis, from Lincoln).

We could say that Anderson resorts to too many yelling matches between Dodd and Quell, but then again, the fervour of the two actors gets to you. If the film wavers, it's the mid-section when the weight is transferred from Quell to Dodd, and yet the arc picks up and we realise that the film only seems vague if we think that it's about The Cause or its belief _ that matters, but not the most, or not more than any other promises of faith and existential security on the market out there. What matters is the fate of Quell, and Anderson walks us down the dark aisle into the man's inscrutable heart. The Master is ambitious, grave, inventive, flawed, and best of all, it's a sad story about a very sad man.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist