The Master flirts with greatness and has much to admire, including exceptional performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their work is reason enough to recommend the film, yet at the screening I attended the audience was strangely silent at the end. That’s because this audacious, original piece of work is less than fully satisfying.
I had heard that The Master was to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s fictionalized exposé of Scientology, but it isn’t so. He might be dramatizing the life of Aimee Semple McPherson or any other charismatic spieler who developed a following in the 20th century. While the movie does deal with the formative years of a “movement” called The Cause, Anderson’s primary focus is the complex relationship between a magnetic self-promoter named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and a lost soul still suffering the emotional scars of World War Two. Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a strange, inarticulate, oversexed loner with a talent for making moonshine who stumbles into Hoffman’s rarefied world quite by chance and stays because he has nowhere else to go. Why Hoffman takes such an interest in the animalistic young man is never explained, but these two disparate men form a bond, and there’s no question that it’s a two-way connection.
Both actors are working at the peak of their powers. Phoenix’s harsh, almost emaciated look and expressive body language manage to convey all the turmoil going on in his head. We never fully comprehend why he is such a tortured soul—“beyond saving,” in the words of Hoffman’s steely wife, well played by Amy Adams—but we marvel at his mood swings and often contradictory behavior.
Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a meticulous-looking charmer blessed with the gift of gab. He’s seldom caught off guard except, now and then, by the actions of his randy and violent protégé. Hoffman projects the precise mix of leadership qualities and bluster to be credible as a man who inspires people to follow (or is it “swallow”?) his teachings, which his own son avers he is making up as he goes along.
Part of the appeal of The Master is its seemingly effortless recreation of time and place, as filmed by Mihai Malaimare, Jr. in crisp 65mm. By choosing just the right locations and casting unfamiliar actors (with period-appropriate hairstyles and clothing) in the supporting roles, Anderson never has to over-sell the idea that we are in post-War America; we simply believe it. The production design by Jack Fisk and David Crank is superb, never flashy. Jonny Greenwood’s discordant score is punctuated by perfectly-chosen music of the era, like Duke Ellington’s jaunty “Dancers in Love.”
But what, ultimately, is this film about? We’re left to make up our own minds about Dodd and his controversial Cause, and we never have a chance to penetrate the enigma of Freddie. Parts of the lengthy film are deliberately strange and difficult to penetrate. There is a musical passage near the end of the film that defies belief, let alone understanding, but I suppose one shouldn’t expect explicit storytelling from the man who climaxed Magnolia with a shower of frogs.
The Master provides a challenging, alternately rewarding and frustrating experience unlike any other I’ve encountered this year. I’m sorry I couldn’t fully embrace it, but in the long run I’d rather watch Paul Thomas Anderson aim for the fences and miss than slog through sheer mediocrity.