PUT your thinking head on and keep your guard up when you take on American film-making heavyweight Paul Thomas Anderson and his magnificent, mad, mesmerising The Master.
The writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood delivers another cinematic treat of epic proportions.
If you’re a fan of the man you will not go home disappointed – baffled, perhaps, but not disappointed.
Populist movie snobs and Anderson naysayers will tell you this is one to “please only the critics”.
Lucky for PTA, cinemagoers are ALL critics, and we can all go toe-to-toe with The Master.
This tale of a 1950s Scientology-type cult and a drunken drifter who falls under its influence offers a heap of talking points and boasts two superior central performances – Joaquin Phoenix as the erratic Freddie Quell and Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as the titular Lancaster Dodd, mulling over and manipulating his new “guinea pig and protege”.
One is an expert in moonshine – Phoenix’s disturbed World War 2 veteran specialises in intoxicating homemade hooch – and the other knows all about snakeoil – Dodd pedalling a crude line in existential bunkum as the basis of his evolving “Cause”.
Anderson has concocted much more than just an expose of mindbending cults – The Master poses universal questions about identity, reality and dreams, man’s need for acceptance, his quest for power and his ultimate limitations.
While not quite peaking near the film-maker’s very highest achievements, this is still one of the finest and already one of the most talked about pictures of the year.
The moviemaking craft is superb throughout, the technical standards almost impossibly high and The Master looks and sounds fantastic – with PTA, that almost goes without saying.
He tackles the Big Questions with a Kubrickian control of the material and bright understanding of the medium, along with a potent intellectual and philosophical rigour.
The post-War America depicted here feels perfect in period detail, a familiarly Steinbeck world gone slightly askew (Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg et al would also be at home with some of The Master’s intense debates and freewheeling conversations).
Phoenix is all wrapped up in himself like a tortured gargoyle, all angst and angular agony, as Freddie is haunted by memories of lost “sweetheart” Doris (Madisen Beaty).
Hoffman slices the ham thick but brings a side salad of subtlety to his otherwise bombastic buffet, revealing Dodd’s inner weaknesses and moments of crippling doubt (The Master’s wife, Peggy – a fine Amy Adams – is soon revealed as the one who really pulls the strings).
Flashes of violence mix with moments of dark humour as a befuddled and obviously furious Quell endures Dodd’s repetitive grillings and out-there “processing” exercises.
David Lynch regular Laura Dern pops up in a welcome, telling cameo and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) adds another striking, unconventional score to another groundbreaking Anderson movie.
THE Master (cert 15) is in cinemas now.