Paul Thomas Anderson has the same condition that afflicted the late Stanley Kubrick: an inability to summon his energies for anything less than a masterpiece. There's nothing like aiming high, of course, as long as you get enough oxygen. The learned journal Sight & Sound recently sent the film world into convulsions when it announced that "Citizen Kane", long voted the best film of all time in its critics' poll, had finally been ousted by Hitchcock's "Vertigo". Personally, I've always preferred the arterial pulse of Welles's "Touch of Evil" to the cold marvel that is "Kane", and while I'm as waylaid as the next man by the woozy melancholy of "Vertigo", isn't it the Hitchcock picture for those who secretly wish that Hitchcock had been French?
Movies are too collaborative a medium to submit to one man's mastery. "On the Waterfront" resulted from the unrepeatable jolt delivered by Kazan, Brando and Budd Schulberg; "Chinatown" from the three-way galvanism of Polanski, Nicholson and Robert Towne. By contrast, Anderson's recent work has shown the unyielding brilliance of a younger director bending the entire medium to his will. This is his subject—human will, as seen in the tendon-taut figure of Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" (2007). That was not so much an American masterpiece as a film in the genre of an American masterpiece: a study of a flawed tycoon, a Kane, a Corleone, that was as monomaniac as its subject.
Anderson's new film, "The Master", turns, like "There Will Be Blood", on a ferocious battle of wills between an older and a younger man, in this case Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a religious cult that is flourishing like a toadstool in the shadow of the second world war, and Freddy (Joaquin Phoenix), a drifter back from the war with all the tics and twitches of someone for whom the shelling has yet to stop. Their first meeting is a beaut: fired from his job as a wedding photographer, Freddy wanders down to the San Francisco bridge where he sees a boat party departing at dusk; he hops on, drinks himself to oblivion and awakes to the words, whispered in his ear, "you’re safe, you're at sea". The sequence is as beautifully dislocated as a dream, the deck dappled with creamy sunlight. "Would you care for some informal processing?" Dodd asks Freddy, as if offering him tea.
What follows is the first of several head-to-heads between the two actors, of increasing loopiness, that will lead some to claim the presence of great acting and others to feel like they have been locked into the mazy backrooms of a Method Acting workshop. Anderson uses his actors the way Hendrix used his guitar strings, less to divine emotional truths and more to generate a wall of psychic feedback, distortion and other assorted freak-out effects; but beneath it all, his conception of character is dangerously static. Our fix on Hoffman's self-proclaimed "scientist and connoisseur" remains steady throughout—a purebred phoney, for all his Puckish twinkle, as identifiable in the first frame as the last. Compare that unbending judgment with the suppleness of Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" (1997), which located some largesse beneath Duvall's Elmer Gantry-like evangelist, and you see how little room Anderson has given his actors. They've nowhere to go, except louder, as Dodd embarks on a systematic deconstruction of his protégé's personality as numbing and relentless as the brainwashing of Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange".
Kubrick is all over "The Master", from the cool symmetry of its 70mm compositions to the lingering suspicion that the title could easily be a bouquet laid at the feet of its maker. Cinema runs on some of the same power-lines as a cult, with the director as self-appointed leader beguiling others to do his bidding with a blend of charm and guile. This is part of the trade-off we're supposed to make with geniuses—never mind the pessimism, check out my tracking shots—and it's not always worth it. American cinema feels a little over-stuffed with dark princes at the moment: Fincher, Aronofsky, Anderson. Stack these young blades in a tool shed, and you'll be lucky to come out in one piece. I'm all for the sliver of ice in the soul, but can't we find one genius who's in love with his fellow man?
"The Master" is a masterpiece of a sort: the lonely sort, shining a thin beam onto yet another of Anderson's locked-in lost souls. That's the trouble with geniuses: they end up reporting back from their own narrowed end-zone. We are a long way from the fun that bubbled up through "Boogie Nights". The only moment of real pleasure came from a short burst of Ella Fitzgerald's "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan", playing in a department store about 20 minutes in: I could feel my body relaxing into it, like a cat in sunlight. Anderson is not very interested in offering his audiences that kind of release. He's too busy tightening the screws, too preoccupied with the Satan standing in front of him.
The Master out now in Britain. Opens in most of Europe in January