Even if you like adrenaline-charged, larger-than-life movies — and I do — it’s hard to deny that summer 2012 was overkill. After four straight months of thrills, stunts and operatic superhero character development, it’s easy to be pathetically grateful for a slow, meticulous film that forces you to think. That’s true even if you find yourself suspecting, belatedly, that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master doesn’t give you that much to think about.
The latest from the writer-director of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights is an ambitious period drama that soars visually, offering dozens of arresting images and moments. Yet its central drama never quite gets off the ground.
Anderson takes on a huge subject here. He wants to show how apparently levelheaded Americans might attach themselves to a newly invented, purportedly “scientific” religion. (Called the Cause, it suggests the Church of Scientology, but never enough to invite litigation.) He wants to place that spiritual practice in the materialistic post-World War II culture that birthed it, depicting its leader, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unctuous Master, as something of a marketing guru. And Anderson wants to show the Cause battling its true nemesis — not the skeptics, but a troubled disciple whose “animal nature” stubbornly resists the church’s efforts to “process” it away.
That disciple is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a war veteran whose name suggests his inability to quell his impulses — loud, lewd and crude alike. Hunched and contorted by unspecified injuries, he skulks through the world clutching a bottle of his favorite home-mixed brew, which appears to contain darkroom chemicals and paint thinner.
This cocktail proves to be a hit with the Master, Lancaster Dodd, after Freddie randomly stumbles onto his yacht. The two opposites form a convincing friendship: Dodd welcomes the chance to let his own “animal nature” off the leash, while Freddie is mesmerized by the Master’s honeyed, cerebral eloquence — and his promises to heal the young man’s unsettled mind.
After the first third, much of the film plays out in Freddie’s “processing” sessions and other one-on-ones with Dodd, which are like nonviolent, therapeutic versions of the primal confrontations between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. Phoenix is nearly as central to this film as Daniel Day-Lewis was to that one; although we get tantalizing glimpses of Lancaster Dodd alone with his iron-willed wife (a scary Amy Adams), The Master rarely strays from Freddie’s perspective.
That’s a problem, because Freddie remains, in many ways, opaque: He’s the mumbling guy you avoid on public transportation, rather than, like Daniel Plainview, an unhinged person whose private world you share for the film’s running time. We know Freddie idolizes his prewar girlfriend (Madisen Beaty), but not why, or what kind of man he imagines would be worthy of her. He disrupts the Master’s genteel world with horny-primate shenanigans — for one crazy instant, I imagined Adam Sandler playing the role — yet he also strives perpetually, grimly for self-control.
As many critics have pointed out, Freddie’s sessions with the Master resemble acting exercises. Self-exploration is a compelling subject, yet not enough to carry a movie whose visual style evokes grander conflicts with indelible images of parched deserts and churning seas, aided by Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score. On that formal level, The Master feels done — and, yes, masterful. Its story remains on the drawing board, a sketch powerful enough to hint at what might have been: an American epic about faith, friendship and self-deception more resonant than any Batman movie.