What has Paul Thomas Anderson wrought with “The Master”? A film that’s majestic and masterly if not a masterpiece, which draws sustenance from masters of the past, filmic, literary and artistic, and is pinioned by two colossal characters as it recounts the early, stuttering formation of a Scientology-style self-help belief system. Joaquin Phoenix, in particular, appears to funnel a lifetime of psychic agony into his epic turn as the feral, hunched, crag-faced drifter Freddie Quell, a character who may come to define the actor. If nothing else, he propels Phoenix right to the front of this year’s Oscar pack.
That Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t register as vigorously comes down to the fact that his emotional path isn’t nearly as chaotic, and Lancaster Dodd is a more likeable figure than you anticipate going in. He’s less manipulative, hair-raising cult leader than avuncular, kind-hearted uncle, even if the tenets he spouts make him, as one character sneers, a “Grade A mystic.” Anderson isn’t concerned with exploring too deeply this charismatic intellect’s reasons for dreaming up ‘The Cause,’ but he delights in showing the Master’s thin skin at any inquisition of his dogma, which his own son claims “he’s making up as he goes along.”
They lead to volcanic eruptions of fury, as when a doubter accuses him of quackery at a society fundraising soiree or a keen devotee (Laura Dern) wonders why he’s changed one of the founding principles in his second book, The Split Saber. What might upset Scientologists most is Quell’s habit – with Dodd’s tacit approval – of dispensing brutal beatdowns on public dissenters of the Master’s message, which riffs on L Ron Hubbard’s formulated faith with its practice of ‘processing’ (read: auditing) – incessant probing asserted to rid believers of disruptive emotions accumulated over millions of years (the galaxial dimension is lightly referenced in Dodd’s occasional, paranoid questioning, e.g. “Are you a member of the Hidden Rulers?”).
Shot exquisitely on 70mm, “The Master” is a visual triumph, crammed with magnificent, painterly imagery and electricity-charged scenes that will linger long in the memory: Quell's descent into a ship’s hold to drain a torpedo and create a liver-killing cocktail; the first ‘processing’ session between Quell and Dodd; a furious jailhouse row that finishes off a porcelain toilet. The depth of storytelling and the compelling, complex relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman, which encompasses father-son, saviour-disciple, master-servant, but most of all seducer and seduced, each by the other, will demand a second viewing.Amy Adams is also strong as Dodd’s fiercely protective wife, and, kicked off by an angry cello, Anderson keeps up his fondness for urgent, inexorable music scores, this one, like “There Will Be Blood,” by Radiohead star Jonny Greenwood.
But for all that’s so very right about “The Master,” the narrative is perhaps less crisp and dynamic than “There Will Be Blood." Following a superb opening stretch in which Quell’s existential, alcohol-soaked anguish is mapped out across the wartime Pacific, American-dream department stores and immigrant-filled cabbage fields before his accidental arrival and long, slow induction into Dodd’s sphere, the second half is less propulsive and sometimes puzzling.
Letting the dramatic tension he’d established with such consummate skill fizzle away, Anderson almost seems at a loss where to steer Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship. The fact that they both end up in England brings an unsatisfying conclusion to their journey, leaving both master and former disciple in a vague purgatory. Maybe that’s the point, and one a second viewing might confirm. With such a formidable reputation, maybe it’s unfair that we expect to always walk away from Anderson’s films feeling awed and should just be content that he continues to create such distinctive and unforgettable cinema.