Hailed as one of the best films of 2012 by many critics, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is a movie that defies categorisation. Ostensibly, it is the story of a disturbed World War II veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who is accepted into a cult movement known as The Cause, run by the mysterious Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). However, as with all of Anderson's movies to date, The Master shatters any notion of a straightforward narrative, demanding that the viewer fill in the logical and emotional gaps for themselves.
The film is many things: an examination of a country on the cusp of change, a character study and a dissection of cult mentality. It's also the latest collaboration between Anderson and musician Jonny Greenwood, following the acclaimed There Will Be Blood in 2007. Best known as the keyboardist and lead guitarist for the band Radiohead, Greenwood's astringent and disturbed music for There Will Be Blood drew much acclaim for its ability to convey the operatic psychosis of the central character played by Daniel Day Lewis.
That score was denied a chance at an Oscar nomination due to a technicality but, given the attention The Master has received, it seems highly unlikely that Greenwood won't be recognised this time. Put simply, his score for The Master operates on similar principles to the score for There Will Be Blood, frequently placed at the forefront of the soundscape by Anderson in order to heighten the intellectual qualities of the narrative. Greenwood is therefore well-served by his director, whose formal, cine-literate approach places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of music.
It's unusual nowadays for films to foreground the manipulative role of the score to such an extent but Anderson actively challenges the cinema audience, snapping them out of apathy and using music almost as a separate language to that of the image itself. Very often, what's happening on-screen may be fairly mundane but when combined with Greenwood's music, the director conveys numerous disturbed undercurrents that make viewers squirm in their seats (the opening sequence of There Will Be Blood is a noteworthy example).
Bearing the avant-garde hallmarks of both Radiohead's alternative rock aesthetic and Greenwood's idol, Krzysztof Penderecki (with whom Greenwood has released an album), The Master is an uncompromising work. Performed by The London Contemporary Orchestra and the AUKSO Chamber Orchestra, with a selected ensemble on certain tracks, the purpose of the music is to give an incomplete picture, to leave an unresolved feeling of psychosis and mania, perfectly reflecting what Anderson does on-screen. Throughout, Greenwood draws on both his classical education and his experience in Radiohead to create a striking, experimental soundscape, while interspersed throughout are period-specific songs from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald that complement Greenwood's score very well.
The first track "Overtones", is a twisted overture of sorts, featuring a wash of strings that, although languidly paced and somewhat appealing, features a real undercurrent of darkness. It's an announcement of sorts that listeners are going to be taken on an uncomfortable journey. Every track works on two layers: "Time Hole" for example places emphasis on attractive woodwind solos courtesy of Andy Finton, David Fuest and Anthony Pike, which eventually become somewhat discordant as the instruments are pitted against one another, never quite playing in sync, to unsettling effect.
"Back to Beyond" is one of the score's more accessible tracks, developing a lush sense of melodrama through morbid strings and winds. One can imagine the harmonic structure of the piece suiting a Technicolor weepie from the period in which the film is set, but as ever, the music is underscored with a sense of emotional turbulence that reflects Freddie's tortured persona. "Alethia" is possibly the most attractive and hypnotic piece on the album, an insistent harp melody working its way up and down behind a calm woodwind section (it was also heard in the film's trailer). Again, the dramatic purpose of the track is two-fold: its deceptively intimate layers indicate the family dynamic of The Cause into which Freddie is invited, yet at the same time the music is possessed of a woozy quality, making us doubt Dodd's motives.
"Atomic Healer" returns the listener to the woodwind solos, this time more unnerving and jagged than before. Different instrumental textures also appear as the score goes on. The first strains of percussion appear in "Able-Bodied Seamen" (also heard in the film's trailer) as Tom Skinner's drums mingle with bass, woodwinds and groaning strings. There's also a segment of dialogue from the movie's opening scene. "The Split Saber" meanwhile introduces an organ, which pulsates away beneath the anguished string section. "Baton Sparks" develops into a chilling mass of atonal, shrieking strings reminiscent of Penderecki's Polymorphia, which was used in Stanley Kubrick's classic horror, The Shining. "His Master's Voice", as the title suggests, indicates how Dodd holds sway over his pupil, Freddie through the sheer power of his vocabulary, starting with an intimate string/piano ensemble before turning fractious and jumpy, effectively summing up their love-hate relationship.
As the longest track in the score, "Application 45 Version 1" runs the gamut of emotions from elegance to atonal, string-led turbulence, building to a truly unsettling finale prior to the closing track, "Sweetness of Freddie" which, in its unerringly pensive tone, leaves the listener hanging, waiting for a resolution that will never arrive. Although the strings are more harmonious at the end of the score than they were previously, there's always a sense that something is being held back, that the picture is incomplete. In this regard, Greenwood's score matches the outlook of the movie perfectly.
What's really surprising about Jonny Greenwood's score for The Master is how it's both listenable and deeply unnerving at the same time. A fair degree of the music is actually quite harmonious and pleasant, yet underneath, there's an angrier side itching to get out.
Yet it's a score that really demands to be heard in context, always the most important factor with film scores. Although it's a compelling listen on its own terms, the music really comes to life when placed alongside the film's stunning 65MM photography, where it both complements the visuals and fights against them, lending an operatic sense of self-awareness that jolts the viewer out of their comfort zone. Of course, Anderson also deserves much credit for placing so much emphasis on the music in the first place; it's truly refreshing to have a director who recognises the importance of a film score. In terms of getting beneath the skin of the movie it accompanies, Greenwood's distinctive, unusual and striking work is among the best of 2012, an acute musical distillation of a tormented state of mind.