“We are on a journey that risks the dark,” Lancaster Dodd warns his assembled followers in The Master. Speaking with the captivating hyperbole essential to any decent cult leader, he promises followers of The Cause a way to reach back into their pasts, “…capturing the mind’s fatal flaws and correcting it back to its inherent state of perfect.” It’s a powerhouse performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a mix of controlled charisma and predatory intelligence.
But as a film, The Master doesn’t seem to share its eponymous character’s matter-of-fact certainty. Its spirit is closer aligned with its protagonist, Freddie Quell. Played by the mercurial Joaquin Phoenix, Quell is a confused jumble of primal urges and a deep melancholy he can’t begin to understand. He is like a wild dog, unable to think ten seconds ahead as he tears through his life in a blur of sex, violence and monstrous amounts of alcohol. A WWII veteran freshly released back into the post-war optimism of the American 40’s, he is the very picture of untreated trauma.
But when he drunkenly stows away on The Cause’s ship, Dodd throws him a lifeline in the form of a command: “Your memories aren’t invited”. What follows is the blooming of a complex love between the two men. It’s a film that confounded some viewers when it first came out, with many expecting a scathing attack on L Ron Hubbard (on who Lancaster Dodd is partially based) or at the very least a classic friends-turned-enemies narrative.
Instead The Master is part psychological noir, part love story, the collision of unspeakable trauma with spiritual yearning. Shot on glorious 70mm, it is an onslaught of raw feeling and evocative imagery akin to a fever dream. Something about it feels elementally true, but the details seem difficult to grasp and troubling loose ends linger long after you’ve left the cinema.
Inherent Vice, meanwhile, revels actively in its loose ends. Our hero Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) starts the movie tugging on a single troubling strand, the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend’s millionaire lover, only to unearth a gigantic interconnected system. The speed with which the dope-addled Sportello (and the audience, for that matter) can comprehend the twists is no match for the speed that the conspiracies, mysteries and paranoid hallucinations unravel and intertwine. It makes for a giddily dizzying experience, if you can give yourself over to the film’s mania.
With a (star-studded) cast of characters longer than some Russian novels, Inherent Vice looks at the corruption of the hippy movement and how systems that determine our collective fate might be too complex and wide-reaching to ever comprehend. It takes on this deeply philosophical, weighty theme with all the seriousness of an over-caffeinated kindergartener. Chock full of pratfalls, visual gags, silly names (Petunia Leeway, Dr Buddy Tubeside, Puck Beaverton…) and sparkling dialogue (at one point our narrator describes a detective as having a “…flat-top of Flinstone proportions and that evil little shit-twinkle in his eye that says: Civil Rights Violations”), it owes as much a debt to the Naked Gun series as it does to Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
The Master and Inherent Vice are beautifully composed, considered films that revel in irresolvable complexity and chaos. Their characters are all searching for clarity and purity, but it’s hard to shoot for an inherent state of perfect when you’re scraping for survival. Come on Saturday to see a journey that risks the dark and finds the light.
The Master and Inherent Vice are screening at The Astor Theatre in 70mm
When: Saturday 24th October, 6pm