Looking like a composite of Daniel Day-Lewis and Morrissey, and sloping around the place with those bad shoulders and insane grimace, Joaquin Phoenix dominates The Master, from start to finish. He is incendiary and powerful as Freddie Quell, the crazed, pitiable young guy who comes back from his stint with the US marines to try and deal with civvy street in post-Second World War East Coast United States.
Freddie was already damaged before the war anyway. His mother is in “the loony bin” as he says himself, in that garbled slur, usually accompanied by a big boyish laugh that would tug at anybody’s heartstrings. He has absolutely no control of his temper, no finesse, and randomly asks girls for sex - mind you, his requests don’t necessarily always go astray, he is a handsome guy, it is that heady post-World War time. People feel lucky to be alive.
But he is a sorry mess. His father died a drunk, he is himself addicted to alcohol and to drinking his own original alcoholic concoctions, typically made on a base of paint thinner.
After short-lived stints working as a store photographer and vegetable picker – both jobs of work end very badly indeed - Freddie somehow stumbles on board the yacht which Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has borrowed to host his daughter’s wedding.
Dodd is a charismatic shrink, philosopher and scientist (apparently based on L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology) who spots some rare kindred thing in the fragile ex-Marine. He takes to Freddie in a fatherly way, invites him to stay on board the yacht and attend the wedding as a guest. But like many father-son relationships, it is a fiery and tempestuous one, as they move on through various locations.
With the help of his steely wife, Mrs Dodd (Amy Adams), Lancaster expertly runs his family, as a travelling cult, known as 'The Cause.' 'The Cause' offers spurious rehabilitation for mental ills and general trauma, based on a hodge-podge of hypnosis and time travel. Yet Dodd has practically no relationship to speak of with his own son, who believes that his father is a mere charlatan, “making it up as he goes along.”
Meanwhile, back home in Masschussetts, Freddie has a sweetheart, Doris Solstead, a young girl of Norwegian extraction, played by Madison Beaty. But being the wild maverick that he is, subject to the whims of his peripatetic wandering life, Freddie hasn't time to make it home to settle down with her as he promised.
So committed is Nathaniel to Freddie, that he is determined to banish his demons, with a doggedly repetitive self-discovery therapy, which by sheer dint of persistence actually yields results. You do see changes in Freddie, he gets less impulsive, learns to rein in his violent outbursts.
The journey to this place of relative calm is the utter charm of this film, which was also written by Paul Thomas Anderson, the genius director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will be Blood. The Master is occasionally a film of Fellini-like beauty. One thinks of the night time scene where, on the run from yet another violent confrontation, Freddie watches, from his lonely isolation, showboat couples dancing drinking champagne. Bedecked with lights, the vessel sails on down river like the boat in Amarcord, you are reminded early on in the action, that this is intelligent, beautifully-paced cinema. Listen too for the minimalist yet powerful score from Jonny Greenwood. Opens tomorrow.