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A much-hyped movie will only deliver over time

Ryan Gilbey on "The Master" and "The Shining".

The Master (15); The Shining (15)
dirs: Paul Thomas Anderson; Stanley Kubrick

Among the emerging American film-makers greeted in the mid-1990s with the cineaste equivalent of teenybopper adoration, Paul Thomas Anderson is the first to have been anointed a heavyweight. Even as a relative beginner he behaved as though he merited that status, mounting dynamic, multi-narrative tapestries, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, on vast canvases. One over-excitable nincompoop even insisted that his last picture, There Will Be Blood, was the greatest Kubrick film that Kubrick never made. (Reader, that nincompoop was me. And I stand by my claim.) While Anderson’s compadres – including non-relation Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), David O Russell (The Fighter) and Alexander Payne (Sideways) – are widely admired, they tend to be consigned to the undercard. PTA, as he is known, is the main event.

This explains the hyperbole for his sixth film, The Master. Extraordinary claims were being made for the movie before anyone had seen a frame. It would win the Best Picture Oscar for the next five years running! Pauline Kael would rise from her grave to review it in the New Yorker! No one would ever need to watch another film again! The irony, now that The Master is upon us, is that all this expectation has been heaped on to a slow-burning, forensic work with none of the giddy visual flash typical of its director. As a character study in which no one evolves or becomes any the wiser, the picture seems engineered to confuse and frustrate, which can only be good for its longevity.

Strangely for a director who has cribbed openly from his heroes (Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme), The Master is actively concerned with the perils of influence. It begins in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves the Navy and staggers into an uncertain life where his rage and his alcoholism become mutually inflammatory. With a failed job and a possible manslaughter behind him, he leaps on to a moored boat for some sleep and sanctuary. He is confronted there by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pink and pompous fellow who adopts a beneficent attitude towards his stowaway. Freddie is accepted almost immediately into his inner circle. “You inspire something in him,” observes Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). He attends their daughter’s wedding and finds his new friends an agreeable bunch, even if their idea of small talk is to ask him: “Would you care for some informal processing?” or “Have you done any time-hole work?”

Lancaster has founded a religion, The Cause, which promises to purge its adherents of negative energy during intensive questioning sessions. Come to think of it, Lancaster bears a passing resemblance to L Ron Hubbard, who launched Scientology during the same era. Any similarities to persons or religions current or past are, I’m sure, entirely scurrilous.

It appears initially that there is a straightforward father/son dynamic between Lancaster and Freddie, although Lancaster already has an heir, who is secretly sceptical of The Cause (“He’s making it up as he goes along,” the lad notes). But Lancaster also sees in his new protégé a specimen for demonstrating the reach of his ideas. He refers to Freddie as an animal and you can see why. The magnificent Phoenix plays this lost lamb as a rude, raucous ape. His shoulders are bent so far forward that they almost clink together under his chin; blasts of corrosive laughter explode from one side of his mouth. (The other side is clamped shut, rendering his speech garbled: “I don’t understand” becomes “dunnshann.”) If Lancaster can take this “silly animal” and turn him into an articulate exponent of The Cause, wouldn’t that be all the proof of its worth that anyone needed?

The mangled comedy in The Master arises from the disparity between what Freddie thinks he is doing to honour the religion and how his behaviour exposes the flaws in the whole rinky-dink operation. He becomes a willing attack dog, physically savaging anyone who contradicts or criticises his “Master”. Instructed by Lancaster to visualise a point on the horizon and then to ride a motorcycle at high speed towards it, Freddie does exactly that. It is some time before Lancaster, squinting into the distance, realises that his disciple has vanished from sight and won’t be back for dinner.

In the less showy of the two lead roles, Hoffman is compellingly coiled; he shows Lancaster bubbling and boiling inside, lacking Freddie’s capacity for bestial fury. It’s a shame that Anderson couldn’t find any greater function for Amy Adams than to play Peggy as a bargain-basement Lady Macbeth. The ambiguity over whether she is the true creator of The Cause would be more provocative had the film not insisted on the cult’s fraudulence from the off, long before the clarinet in Jonny Greenwood’s layered score had begun imitating a pungi, the instrument prized by snake-charmers. But The Master remains a captivating and admirably patient film that gives no suggestion of having exhausted its mysteries in one viewing.

It will do well to endure as long as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a ghost story all the more effective for being counter-intuitive. (What nerve it took to shoot a brightly lit horror movie.) The US cut, featuring 24 minutes trimmed from the European edit, makes its cinema debut in the UK this week. A quick recap for the uninitiated: frustrated writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as winter caretaker at Colorado’s secluded, snowbound Overlook Hotel. Despite the establishment’s grisly past as the site of several murders, Jack brings with him his ragdoll wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their eerily alert son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). It’s giving nothing away to say that the Overlook, with its jazz-age ghosts and its lobby awash with waves of blood, would receive only a middling score on Tripadvisor.

To be fully appreciated, The Shining must be seen in the cinema for its spatial power and the sedated sweep of its Steadicam photography. But it’s a must-hear as well as a must-see: the screeching electronic score and intricate sound design forms a sonic labyrinth every bit as terrifying as the physical one into which Danny is pursued by his axe-wielding father. Additional material extends mostly to occasional extra shots, with one exception: Wendy’s long conversation with a female doctor who examines Danny after a fall. The revelation that Jack had once injured his son while drunk was handled in the shorter cut by him alone – the abuser always got to tell his side of the story. Now we also have Wendy recounting the incident, combined with the doctor’s disapproving silence, the emphasis shifts significantly and renders the film frightening in entirely new ways. Like all great movies, and movie monsters, it’s alive!

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?