There are few filmmakers working whose output has been as consistently exciting and rewarding as Paul Thomas Anderson, and there are few films I have anticipated with as much confidence this year as “The Master.”
So you’ll understand if it unnerves me a bit to find that I don’t love it.
I respect it and even admire it, but for the first time, I find myself struggling to connect on that extra level that we reserve for the films that matter most to us. “The Master” is, as was rumored, a fictionalized look at the dynamics that existed in the early days of Scientology, but simply viewing it through that prism, looking for the parallels and trying to parse Anderson’s stance on the house that Hubbard built, would be a simplistic way to approach it. Instead, I think the film is really trying to grapple with the way broken or damaged people reach for salvation and balance and the extremes they will suffer in the futile hope that someone else will give them the answers, which is certainly fertile ground for drama.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a dangerous man as the film opens, ruled by impulse and addiction. He has only one real skill set that we see him demonstrate, the ability to mix up makeshift alcohol out of anything up to and including the fluids from inside a torpedo. His cocktails seem to be burning holes in his brain, leaving him a raw nerve who can barely strangle his way through a sentence. The opening movement of the film is just Freddie raging at the world, unable to find any place where he fits. It’s not until he stows away on a boat, drunk and not sure where he is, that he starts to work his way towards some larger understanding of himself and his actions.
The boat turns out to be under the command of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is the leader of a nascent religious/philosophical movement called The Cause, and from the moment Freddie and Dodd meet, there is some strange pull between the two of them. Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is not sure what to make of this strange mad dog that her husband adopts, and the people around Lancaster seem nervous to see how quickly Freddie is allowed into the inner circle. For his part, Freddie seems to barely understand what’s happening to him, and there is an early scene where Lancaster subjects Freddie to a sort of personality exam, a psychological word game that is fun at first but that eventually pushes Freddie to an emotional epiphany that suggests that there is some sort of humanity buried deep inside the scar tissue that seems to make up 99% of his body weight.
The performances in the film are beyond reproach. I am astonished at what Joaquin Phoenix does here. It looks like he is constantly on the verge of a total breakdown, and there’s nothing about it that feels calculated or safe. It is one of those performances that is so committed, so real, so uncomfortable that I almost felt like calling someone to help him. I know he’s younger than I am, but he looks 50 years old here, with a face like ten miles of bad highway, worn by life, with haunted eyes sunken into his ruined visage. Philip Seymour Hoffman, on the other hand, is perfect as this preening, phony intellectual, a man who knows just enough to convince the hungry and the lonely around him that he has the answers. He is pink, soft, in love with the luxury that comes from being worshipped, and when he is challenged in any way, his instant rage seems like a man desperate to maintain the kingdom he’s carved out for himself.
One of the keys to the film seems to be Amy Adams as Lancaster’s wife, pulling strings from the sidelines, constantly course-correcting her husband and focusing his salesman’s nature in the right directions. She burns with a zealot’s heat that even Lancaster can’t fully commit to, and it is obvious that she would be more than happy to destroy anyone she views as an enemy of The Cause. She is suspicious of Freddie, but more than that, she’s aware that he seems to speak to some part of Lancaster that yearns to be more free, more animal, and she knows exactly how to get her husband back on track. It’s not a performance we’ve ever seen from her before, and it’s hard to reconcile this hard-faced woman with the cheery rom-com version of Adams we’ve seen in so many films before. There’s a scene where Freddie imagines all the women in a room naked as he watches Lancaster dance among them, singing to them, and Adams sits in a chair, naked and seemingly pregnant, one of the least vain images I can imagine.
And while I think the character work is all interesting and pitch-perfect, I’m not sure the film ever really does anything aside from set up this dynamic, Freddie struggling to find some sort of peace in this process, constantly straining to find meaning in Lancaster’s work. The film has an ominous underbelly, aided quite a bit by Jonny Greenwood’s alarming score, which throbs with menace, but it remains unexplored, unreleased, tension without resolution. Even at the end of the film, there is nothing like a conclusion offered up. The photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is gorgeous, and you can tell that it was shot in 65MM, particularly when it comes to the many sequences that are just close-ups of these faces. There is a lush, rich, hyper-clear quality to the movie that is hypnotic, but I felt myself resolutely outside of the experience as a viewer. I don’t need Anderson to hit any conventional story beats, and there’s no comment I hate more about a film than that the main character isn’t “likable,” but in this case, the film almost seems stubborn about the way it refuses to offer up any sort of closure or clarity. And as far as the Scientology comparison are concerned, I can certainly see how this lines up with the details of Hubbard’s early days with his organization, but it’s hardly an expose or an attack. That’s just a perfect example of how to build and protect a cult in the mainstream, so Anderson uses those similarities to give a grounded sense of reality to The Cause. That’s all.
I would never call this a “bad” film, because it’s not. It is expertly crafted, and I am sure actors will watch this work for decades to come to see how close to the bone you can play pain and rage, but it is a film I can’t claim to love, and that depresses me. “The Master,” like Lancaster Dodd himself, offers up lots of talk and lots of sound and fury, but no answers, and it is one of the most frustrating experiences of the year for me as a result.
“The Master” opens in theaters in limited release on September 14, and then rolls out wider on the 21st.