White House Down



The same day I watched Roland Emmerich’s new film, news broke that Barack Obama was preparing to commit American forces in the Syrian civil war as a consequence of the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people. The sobering real-life headline somewhat popped the bubble on Emmerich’s typically frenzied adventure. In fairness to the director, whose film was planned, shot and edited a year ago or more, it was about the only occasion when grim reality intruded on White House Down: a double-denim 80s action romp disguised in the pin-stripe of a high-stakes political thriller.

As with all of Emmerich’s films, the plot synopsis could be described in pictograms on the leaflet that accompanies a piece of flat-pack furniture. The first few minutes are spent showing us which bits slot together and which direction the screws should turn. Happily for the hyper-efficient Emmerich, screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s brutalist approach gets all the dull-but-necessary story business out of the way so there’s more time for running about and blowing things up.

It’s an economical model but one with inherent problems. For instance, we first meet Channing Tatum’s aspiring Secret Service agent as he shares a dialogue scene with a squirrel, seemingly because there is no-one else around to talk to. Cale is about to drive Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) to his office on Capitol Hill, as he explains to the chattering rodent, before making his way to the White House with his eleven-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) to interview with Secret Service agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a big job.

Meanwhile, braying snippets from the television news networks explain how Foxx’s President Sawyer determination to “break the cycle of war in the Middle East” (which he blames on the “military-industrial complex”, as if that were explanation enough) has broken new ground. At a peace convention in Geneva, Sawyer initiates a complete withdrawal of American troops from the region and is photographed shaking hands with the new Iranian leader.

All this peacenik talk doesn’t play well with the folks back home. His long-serving chief of security (James Woods) is on high alert against a terrorist threat. Although still mourning the loss of his son in a war that his boss now calls futile, his job is to protect the President. He’s also just days from retirement which, in the way of these things, doesn’t bode well for his hopes of seeing the end credits. But even as Sawyer confides in his stylish and smart First Lady (Garcelle Beauvais) that his peace plan might result in him becoming “a one-term president”, a motley crew of heavily-armed right-wing mercenaries led by the Aryan-sounding Stenz (Jason Clarke) have secreted themselves in the White House.

White House Down is a far better Die Hard film than John Moore’s franchise effort from earlier this year. If his character’s name is just a few consonants away from being an actionable copyright infringement, Tatum’s divorced, unstable hero John Cale is - through violently unpredictable circumstances - soon reduced to wearing a blood-stained white sleeveless vest and a bandolier of salvaged weapons. Buddied-up with the President, Cale must keep them both alive for long enough to foil the terrorist plan and save his daughter. As events proceed, the plot thins. There’s some back-room political chicanery as the chain of command is tied in knots, a gung-ho response from the military chiefs that turns into a shambles and a series of to-the-death gun battles that result in the wanton destruction of the building’s priceless antiques and furnishings.

There isn’t much that doesn’t result in wanton destruction, actually. White House Down marks the third time Emmerich has laid waste to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on screen, but this is his first time to do so from the inside out. Once behind the walls, he seems to take a certain delight in blowing every iconic room into smouldering rubble and turning detailed reproductions of familiar objects into firewood: the Lincoln bed, the ‘Resolute’ desk and Stuart’s emblematic portrait of Washington are all splintered and set ablaze for our entertainment.

It’s a model of mayhem that has served Emmerich well over the years, his films make a lot of money, but White House Down is the director’s attempt to have his cake and blow it up, too. He gleefully incinerates the apparatus of the American state yet constantly reminds us of its power to effect positive change in the world. He gives us a president modelled after Obama and castigates him for being politically enfeebled at the same time as he has him pick up a machine-gun and turn Commando in Chief.

Never mind the laws of man, given the laws of physics currently at play in the universe; White House Down could not happen. Emmerich knows that. In fact, he revels in it. Part tongue-in-cheek provocation, part thunderous action extravaganza, the director gleefully expands on the lesson from television’s The West Wing: it does no harm to see impossible events played out in the familiar corridors of real-life political power. If nothing else, it serves to distract us from thinking too much about what really goes on there.

The Conjuring

James Wan’s The Conjuring (the title is meaningless, unless you consider the box-office numbers the film has magicked up) is an old fashioned spook-house horror, built on the bedrock of a supposedly true supernatural story and unashamedly derived from the best bits of a long list of genre classics, from The Exorcist to The Shining

1976s blockbuster Amityville Horror is a touchstone, but that’s no surprise given that this purportedly true-to-life account of the strange goings on that affected a family home in Rhode Island in the early 70s comes from the same source, husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).

In real life, the Warrens came to prominence at a time when there was a spike in interest in paranormal matters; the most pronounced revival in spiritualism since the Victorian era, a hangover from the third-eye opening sixties. It was a golden age for woo-hoo: the films already mentioned were all released during the 70s, and have been rejigged, remade and repurposed ever since. As the Warrens were busy mounting investigations and writing up reports in a series of best-selling books, to join hundreds of others on bookshelves around the world, belief in ghosts, demons and little green men was in the ether. Horror films became blockbusters, they were fainting in the aisles at The Exorcist (similarly ‘based on a true story’) while on small screens at home, Arthur C Clarke and Uri Geller were revealing signs and wonders. Context is everything in storytelling and Wan goes to considerable effort to evoke the era, dressing his sets and actors in drab shades of brown and plastic while adding a subtle sepia tint to the cinematography.

After attending one of their lectures at a local college, a desperate young married couple, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) beg the Warrens to visit them at their new home, deep in the New England countryside. As soon as Farminga’s medium Loraine enters the house, she knows something is wrong. An evil spirit has taken hold of the family. It manifests itself through night-time disturbances, slammed doors, bad smells and sudden cold spots. Confined to one room by the nightly disturbances, deep fissures have appeared in the family. 

The kids are terrified and withdrawn. Carolyn, who appears to be the focus of the haunting, wakes every morning covered in bruises. She has strange thoughts. They are being pulled from their beds in the middle of the night and seeing spectres in the shadows (cleverly hidden from our view). The Warrens arrive in a bustle and do a pleasingly analogue survey with flash-bulb cameras and reel-to-reel tape recorders. Their professional diagnosis is that the Perron’s house is haunted by a malign spirit that must be removed.

Wan leads us through the house with a constantly tracking camera, familiarising us with the layout, before injecting sudden moments of twitchy pace by switching from steady, carefully composed shots to jolting, galloping Steadicam. Events that happen off-screen are chased down, the camera arriving a moment too late, blurred and breathless. The big scares, and there are quite a few, are delivered like rib-shaking punches from a skipping welterweight. It’s all terribly effective.

But there’s the distinct impression that the Warren’s aren’t really listening to the voices in their own heads. For one thing, they keep a museum of cursed items – including a creepy porcelain doll possessed by a demon – in their home. That’s the same home they share with their eight year old daughter. One of them underwent a psychic collapse during their last exorcism they performed, yet they’re happy to agree to do another, not too long after, and agree the deal while standing in a car park. These underestimations are carefully delineated in a lengthy prologue that forecasts details that will become important later, but feel every bit the signposts that they are.
  
The first half unfolds as an escalating series of creepy moments, perfectly timed for maximum effect and convincingly played by the entire cast. The Conjuring is the very model of a haunted house horror. Pre-determination is perhaps inevitable in a story about psychics, but everything seems to lose traction once the Warrens apply their bell, book and candle. Nevertheless, a sequel is already in development.

Byzantium

Anyone who follows the careers of Irish writers and directors has, over the last couple of decades, had what might be termed a Neil Jordan Moment. These are times as you watch one of his films when your jaw drops and your eyes bulge and the synapses in your brain go ‘ping’. The werewolves emerging from the diner’s mouths in The Company of Wolves, the atomic mushroom cloud exploding over a mountain lake in The Butcher Boy, the shock reveal in The Crying Game that made the whole world catch its breath.

His new film, Byzantium, has more than a few of these moments, arresting glimpses into a character’s psychology that could only have come from Jordan’s singular imagination. Here’s one: a waterfall transforming from a clear, cold torrent to a cascade of steaming blood. The red flow is the result of a new victim entering a magical place, a round stone cell perched on the side of a granite cliff on a remote Irish island. This is a place where vampires are born. One of those few undead, Clara (Gemma Arterton) was made here two hundred years ago by Ruthven (pronounced Riven and played by Jonny Lee Miller), a cruel British Army officer who condemned her to life in a brothel once he had his way with her. Having found an arcane map that led her to the cliff-side hut, Clara was reborn in blood. Later, she had a daughter, who was also initiated as a vampire. Now Clara and Eleanor (an especially ethereal Saoirse Ronan) pose as sisters, flitting around the tired seaside towns along the south coast of England in search of sanctuary, somewhere they can be safe from the secret, all-male society of vampires that have been hunting them for centuries.

When their latest lair is discovered by one of those men, Darvell (Sam Reilly), mother and daughter flee to the coastal town of Newhaven, the place they lived in as mortal beings before their transformation. There, Clara insinuates herself with the shy, awkward Noel (Daniel Mays), owner of a run-down boarding house which she plans to turn into a brothel while Eleanor, two hundred and sixteen and never been kissed, returns to school and starts a tentative relationship with local boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). When her teachers (played by Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy) discover the truth behind a seemingly-fantastical writing assignment, they start to investigate these strange sisters and their sinister lives, laying a trail of clues for the women’s pursuers to follow.

Adapted from the play A Vampire Story by Moira Buffini (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan), Byzantium marks the director’s return to bloodsucking fiends twenty years on from his sumptuous, suffocating take on Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. In the interim, vampires have become commonplace, from Buffy to Blade, True Blood to Twilight, with Jordan deliberately seeking out a new direction for his immortal characters, a steady accretion of tone that builds into a melancholy atmosphere of Gothic dread. Every vampire story has to re-write and re-establish the rules: Jordan’s monsters don’t have fangs, but draw blood through elongated thumbnails that stiffen and sharpen at the sight of a bare neck. They don’t seem to be affected by daylight, or garlic or crosses or running water, although they do require an invitation to enter people’s homes. They are also immortal, suspended in time, with Jordan cutting between the centuries to tell the story of how they came to be alongside the story of what they have become.

It’s an ambitious structure but the problems with Byzantium are in the story itself, not in how it is told. Clara and Eleanor’s twinned sagas aren’t dark enough to be horrific, subversive enough to be truly original or nuanced enough to be convincingly political. There is little sense of the vampire’s compulsion to feed, that predatory parapsychology that marks them out as fascinating, inhuman creatures driven by something we cannot understand. As characters, they are shallow and one-dimensional: Clara seems only motivated by money, using her flawless body to provide them with the resources to ensure their survival, while Eleanor’s self-imposed moral code only allows her to drink the blood of the elderly dying, who see her as a kindly angel of death in their last moments.

Later, the balance of power Jordan had spent time carefully establishing is seemingly abandoned to allow the threads of the story to better fit together. This jarring uncertainty is part of what marks the film out as an original work but are also what causes it to gradually lose its power to unnerve and disturb. The wandering plot lacks the heart-stopping lyricism of Jordan’s best work, but it does have its moments; startling visions we have never seen before that later, we cannot forget.

The Great Gatsby

Great just isn’t good enough for Australian director Baz Luhrmann. It’s too small a word for the kind of monumental confections his films have become, elaborately iced wedding cakes that deliver surges of sugary energy but provide little narrative nutrition. Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless novel The Great Gatsby might well be entitled The Stupendous Gatsby, told at a breathless gallop in gaudy 3D with a starry cast of A-list actors and a supporting cast of thousands of faceless digital effects technicians. The effect is like Al Jolsen’s Jazz Singer hitching a ride with The Fast and the Furious. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The best known adaptation of the book, Jack Clayton’s version with Robert Redford from 1974, suffered from sticking too closely to the source novel with characters standing around reeling off paragraphs of Fitzgerald’s prose in gleaming white clothes. Luhrmann’s uniquely kitchen-sink approach might give the story a bolt of energy, but for a long time he overplays his hand, unable to match his cacophonous vision of the Jazz Age with the different beats of the story.

The film opens with a broken-veined Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) relating the last crazy decade of his life to a psychiatrist in a book-lined room. As Carraway tells it, he had moved to New York to take a job on Wall Street when he failed to make his name as a writer. He rented a cottage on Long Island “for eighty a month”, across the water from the house his cousin Daisy Buchannan (Carey Mulligan) shares with her boorish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), a dissolute, polo-playing scion of a wealthy family. Carraway soon hears fantastical stories about his next-door neighbour, a reclusive young multi-millionaire called Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws enormous parties for New York society every weekend but is otherwise a complete enigma. As the friendship between Carraway and Gatsby grows, we come to learn more about the mysterious man who has built his Xanadu within sight of the woman he is obsessed with, and what part the young Wall Street novice might play in his long-formed plan to recover a lost love.

Although part of the fascination with any literary adaptation derives from seeing what new perspectives a director can find in the material, in the end, the novel is still the novel. It would be pointless to outline the places where Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce’s story deviates from Fitzgerald’s: there are plenty and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This version is designed only as a cinematic experience, where images and sounds, not words, evoke emotion. The shame is that for a long time, the images in this Great Gatsby remain just that, beautifully rendered and sumptuously ornate pictures that vibrate with theatrical passion but otherwise fail to move the soul.

It’s hard to know what Luhrmann makes of Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic icon in his own story, or if he is interested in portraying him as anything more than a victim of love. Luhrmann’s interpretations all drive his characters towards the one place that he feels most comfortable; tragic, melodramatic romance. Every bump and contour in Fitzgerald’s story is smoothed down to make this passage easier. Nuances turn into vapid clichés through endless repetition, the ornate places and lavish settings become postcards and shop windows and, through dialogue, voice-over and anachronistic music, every awkward nail in Fitzgerald’s knotty story is emphatically hammered home. Luhrmann’s characters cannot see a horizon without staring off into it with a sigh, followed immediately by his swooping camera and a visual trick or two. His techniques are so emphatic, they overwhelm the story. His presence can be felt in every overly-choreographed movement, standing off camera, beating out time. But his rhythm is off.

Every frame of the film has been worked to ribbons by an unseen army of digital effects technicians. It is difficult to invest in characters that appear to be wisps, wandering an imaginary world. Now, before you say it, I realise all films take place in imaginary worlds, but some are more imaginary than others. Nothing in The Great Gatsby feels solid. Nothing feels like it isn’t a film set. The characters are wearing costumes, not clothes. They speak only in dialogue and their behaviour is designed only to advance the plot. Even Luhrmann’s well-chosen snippets of archive footage have been artificially colourised in photo-chemically lurid oranges and blues. There are long sections that look like nothing more than an expensive commercial for a high-end after-shave named Old Sport.

The film gets better as it continues but then it couldn’t have gotten much worse. In the end, it’s the characters that save it, and the actors playing them. They transform from figures in a photograph to people that we can believe might share love. DiCaprio is too good an actor to succumb to Luhrmann’s fumbling and steadily grows into the role, finding his own interpretation on a man who is, all at once, a helpless romantic, a dangerously obsessed weirdo, a ruthless social climber and a crooked gangster. He looks the part too, an almost surreal personification of the urbane sophisticate, suave and certain. It’s strange that one of the most ephemeral characters in American literature should be the most solid presence in the film.

The Best & Worst of 2012

An unexpectedly busy Christmas season means a short delay in compiling my best and worst of the year just gone, with the extra couple of weeks allowing a few late changes and additions. As before, I have listed my favourites of 2012 in no particular order but the standout film was Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The Turkish director's sixth feature is a visually stunning, quietly gripping masterpiece about a group of policemen out hunting for a buried corpse in the countryside. A modest epic of desperation that made magic of the mundane, it cements Ceylan's reputation as one of the new masters of world cinema. At least it does for me.

And, in no particular order:

The two finest acting performances with a story that falls just short of transcendence, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dared to distil the story of America in the Atomic Age into the relationship between a Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix’s wild-eyed follower.

Amour
Michael Haneke’s devastating exploration of the power of love won the Austrian writer and director his second Palme d’Or in a row. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, now both in their 80s, play a loving couple whose lives are disrupted by sudden illness and inevitable death. Unwatchable yet unmissable.

The big winner at the Oscars brought a shaft of flickering light to an otherwise gloomy January. Funny, sweet and sumptuously presented, Michel Hazanavicius’ film made stars, however briefly dazzling, of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo.

Bart Layton's ingenious, intricate documentary about identity thief Frédéric Bourdin, a thirty year old French orphan who pretended to be missing Texan teenager Nicholas Barclay. The cliché that truth is stranger than fiction has rarely been more appropriate.

Lenny Abrahamson’s third film confirmed his reputation as the best Irish young director working today. A brilliantly-crafted story of public death and private remorse, inspired by a real-life crime, it had a career-making performance from 20 year old star Jack Reynor.

Plenty of films tried to put the tangled politics of the Occupy protest movement in a cinematic context in 2012, the clumsiest being David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, but it was a big-budget, blockbuster superhero film, funded by a major studio, that came closest. After seven years and billions of dollars at the box office, Christopher Nolan ended his trilogy by bringing Batman bang up to date.

Looper
Rian Johnson made telling the story of his time-travelling sci-fi look easy and complicated at the same time. Not perfect, but very nearly.

Searching For Sugar Man
Malik Bendjelloul's documentary told the story of how a couple of South African fans of 1970s singer/songwriter Rodriguez decided to look behind the urban legends that surrounded his disappearance from the scene. What they found was astonishing.

Shame
Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender reunited for this brutal examination of an Irishman in New York addicted to sex. A long night of the soul delivered in a series of horribly intimate close-ups and endless tracking shots, it burned up the screen in a wrong-feeling, sad way.

Who would have guessed that the year’s finest action film would be made on a shoestring in Indonesia by a Welsh director? Tied with Leos Carax’s loo-lah Holy Motors for most WFT moments, Gareth Evans’ hyperkinetic extravaganza made a new martial arts star of Iko Uwais. The five-minute standing ovation that greeted its Dublin Film Festival screening stood the hairs on the back of my neck.

The Worst of 2012
To mark annual whipping-boy Matthew McConaughey's spectacularly unlikely career resurrection - as an entrepreneurial stripper in Soderberg's Magic Mike and a sleazy cop in Friedkin's nutso-noir Killer Joe - this year's worst list is limited to one title (in which McC did not appear), McG's This Means War: an ultra-violent toothpaste commercial. There were others but none as soulless.

Image of the director and his cast on location taken from Nuri Bilge Ceylan's website.

Seven Psychopaths

Irish writer and director Martin McDonagh has gone Hollywood. He’s gone to Hollywood and made a Hollywood film, about people living and working and dying and not working in Hollywood. Seven Psychopaths is a gory black comedy which works as a both a satire on, and an example of, hardboiled gangster cinema. Closely connected in spirit and execution to the surreal knottiness of Charlie Kaufmann and the vivid Grand Guignol theatrics of Quentin Tarantino, McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges operates on the verge of absurdity throughout, being defiantly self-aware, self-referential and completely and utterly clever-clogs.

All of this is nothing new for McDonagh, whose characters, even in his acclaimed stage plays, have always shared the quality that Tarantino calls “movieness”; the awareness that they are characters and that the world they inhabit is make-believe. For In Bruges, McDonagh placed two stock characters, a bickering pair of killers-for-hire, in a situation that not only allowed him to explore how their glamorised cinema universe bumped up against the grey, everyday world of dusty museums and shuffling tourists, but to slowly absorb into their orbit other characters from a film-within-the-film, a ferocious dwarf actor and an art department love-interest. McDonagh mocked his assassin’s appetite for violence while indulging in it, a neat trick that he executes again, albeit without the same levels of subtlety and wit. It is Hollywood, after all.

Colin Farrell, who co-starred in In Bruges, plays Martin, an ex-pat Irish screenwriter working in Hollywood. Martin seems to enjoy his new life in Los Angles; the comfortable domesticity he shares with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish, briefly) and sipping cocktails with his live-wire best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) beside sun-kissed, rooftop swimming pools. The trouble is that Martin has forgotten how to write. Terminally blocked, and with his agent pressing him for delivery of a long-promised screenplay, all he has to show for a year’s work is a title: Seven Psychopaths. Everyone loves the title, it’s a great title, but Martin is unable to progress his story any further than EXT: LOS ANGELES STREET CORNER, DAY.

Martin is beginning to despair that he will never be able to place two words together again when his peripatetic life starts feeding him inspiration. The newspapers are filled with stories about a masked killer who only kills mobsters, leaving a playing card on their bleeding corpses. There’s a character in that, Martin thinks, but the Jack of Diamonds killer is only one psycho: he needs six more. When Billy places a recruitment ad in the paper looking for psychopaths to get in touch, they meet a rabbit-stroking tramp (played by Tom Waits) who describes, in eye-watering detail, those events that drove him to become a killer. Billy, whose career as an actor has hit the skids, tells Martin about another potential character, his colleague in a dog-kidnapping business Hans (Christopher Walken), who has recently taken illegal possession of a yappy Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie, a notoriously ruthless mob boss played by Woody Harrelson. What’s the count on psychopaths now? Four, maybe five? A side-story introduces us to a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen), sitting in a motel room plotting revenge on America for the Vietnam War while, somewhere in the city, Harry Dean Stanton stalks the streets in a wide-brimmed hat as a vengeful Quaker tormenting the man who killed his only daughter. There’s really not a lot to be gained in keeping up with the various shades of human psychopathology on display, the film is more about following the looping convolutions of the plot, and perhaps it’s not even about that.

Just as the fictional Martin becomes distracted by the unhinged characters that he meets, the real-life Martin allows this otherwise workaday buddy crime caper to break free from the conventions of cinematic narrative and fold in on itself, becoming a reflexive meta-textual commentary on screen violence, storytelling and Los Angeles itself. For instance, Rockwell’s excitable Bickle demonstrates what should happen next at a key juncture in Farrell’s screenplay, proposing an action set-piece which gathers everybody in a cemetery to shoot off big guns and splash around in fake blood; a crude, dumb shoot-out that we then watch being acted out, in all its high-concept glory. When the story takes a long detour into talkativeness, Bickle is again on hand to observe, “oh, we’re making French movies now?” Elsewhere Walken’s grizzled Hans tells Martin, truthfully, “your women characters are awful”, as Cornish and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe come and go in a couple of frames.

But if McDonagh can see where his screenplay needs work, why not do the work rather than leave it to the characters point out the problems and carry on with a smirk? That’s not to say that the results aren’t entertaining, the dialogue fairly fizzes and the multiple storylines are enjoyably contorted, but it is difficult to remain involved in a film when the characters are going out of their way to remind the audience that they are watching a film. There’s no time during Seven Psychopaths to think how neatly McDonagh’s story fits together, if it fits together at all, and afterwards the film doesn’t linger long enough in the memory to bother trying.

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s wholly engrossing, slyly disorienting study of the symbiotic relationship between a feckless drifter and a charlatan cult leader in the years after WWII is an extraordinary film; brilliantly realised and audaciously eccentric.

The Master opens in the days before the end of WWII, as the Japanese surrender is being negotiated and American sailors are enjoying shore-leave on a sandy Pacific island. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an able seaman with a talent for making high-proof moonshine from whatever chemicals he finds lying around. Newly demobbed and unable to adjust to civilian life, he spends some time in a veteran’s hospital, where uncaring psychiatrists diagnose him with a post-traumatic stress disorder and don’t seem to notice, or care, that he is drunk all the time.

Having cleaned up enough to get a job as a photographer in a department store, and keep it just long enough to fall back off the wagon, Freddie flits across the United States, eventually ending up in a field in the middle of nowhere harvesting cabbages with migrant workers. After almost killing an elderly man with a bad batch of his booze, Freddie finds himself a stowaway on a yacht belonging to the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), or rather, the yacht that the self-proclaimed visionary, literary genius, nuclear physicist and philosopher has borrowed from a rich benefactor and is using as a training centre for his quasi-religious movement, The Cause.

Before too long, Freddie is making his moonshine for Dodd, using paint-thinner, crushed-up pills and orange soda to loosen the older man’s writer’s block. The two become friends, perhaps because Freddie’s home-made hooch mirrors Dodd’s home-spun hogwash. After submitting to Dodd’s psychological profiling in a thrillingly tense question and answer session, Freddie becomes the Master’s right-hand man and surrogate son, booze-supplier, confessor and sometime violent enforcer. “You'll be my protégé and my guinea pig”, Dodd tells him, with a flourish, but Freddie is just content to have a roof over his head and three square meals a day. Actual self-realisation will take more time, according to Dodd and his manipulative wife Peggy (superbly played by a steely Amy Adams). As Dodd works his mountebank magic on Freddie’s broken mind, the story follows his ups and downs as he struggles to write his new book (on the restorative power of laughter) and stay one step ahead of his enemies, while his sidekick tries to cope with his troubled past, and mourns his lost love (played in flashback by Madisen Beaty).

In the same way that There Will Be Blood was loosely based on the life of American oil tycoon Edward Doheny, The Master is undoubtedly inspired by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the cult Church of Scientology. Yet it also encompasses every other entrepreneurial evangelist, self-help saviour and pavement prophet in American history, malignant and benign, from Dale Carnegie to Jim Baker, Pat Robertson to Jim Jones. Anderson’s portrait of Dodd is not damning, exactly, but he carefully positions the guru as a symptom of the enormous social upheaval such as that experienced in the aftermath of WWII when, at the dawn of the Atomic Age and faced with unspeakable horror and mass death, people went looking for answers to the big questions: why are we here? What’s the point of it all? Dodd is a vulture, a smart, confident charlatan with a natural-born ability to identify weakness and speak directly to it. He finds an exemplary subject in Freddie, traumatised by war, floundering in alcohol and brim-full of regret.

With his vulnerable, fractured face, Phoenix’s performance suggests the grimaces and squints of the Method actors who came of age in the 1950s, such as Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, while the preening, pretentious Hoffman, playing a role Anderson wrote specifically for him, is like a plump Orson Welles, dancing nimbly across the screen, around the chasing police and lawyers, around any explanation of his ridiculous theories and skipping, laughing, ahead of his followers; the people who buy his books, pay for his seminars and, like Laura Dern’s wealthy Miss Sullivan, honour him with the title of “Master”.

Phoenix and Hoffman, both at the top of their game, slug it out all the way through Anderson’s story, as he surgically dissects post-War American life, separating the parasites from the prey, the profiteers from the paupers and the crooks from the credulous. From time to time, Anderson breaks the story with unannounced dream sequences, if indeed they are dreams, strange deliriums that tie elements of the story more tightly together or hang, loosely, like worrying threads. Johnny Greenwood’s discordant orchestral score takes a little getting used to but has a similar effect, unsettling and sometimes distracting.