There are two movies at work in The Master, one a smooth and quietly scary look at the nascent stages of a pseudo-scientific cult, the other a blunt character study of a towering, raging id. These two movies have been grafted together with delicate, particular care by visionary writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, but I'm afraid all of his painstaking work ultimately can't cover up the seam where these two different films are awkwardly fused.
Most people know The Master as being "that Scientology movie," in that it is about a paranormal and metaphysical self-help belief system dreamt up by a colorful and charismatic charlatan in rattled, spiritually hungry post-WWII America. And there is indeed quite a good deal of similar language between the two outfits — where L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics (the foundational basis of Scientology) speaks of auditing, Lancaster Dodd's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) The Cause has its new members go through "processing" — and both are tinged with whiffs of science-fiction, with Scientology concerning itself with space aliens and The Cause basing itself on past-life experience and time travel. So yes, Scientology certainly seems to be the inspiration here, but this is not a film that aims to be an exposé of cults or a treatise on junk behavioral therapy. No, that motif is only the backdrop for Anderson's larger inquest, one into the heads, hearts, loins, and whatever else of men, particularly American men, who cannot seem to move through the world without trying to consume it.
To that end, we don't actually encounter Lancaster Dodd and his strange contingent until about thirty minutes into the film. In the beginning, we instead spend most of our time with Freddie Quell, a loping weirdo with a permanent scowl who we first see languishing on some island beach as he and his fellow Navy sailors wait for the war to groan to an end. Because Freddie is played by Joaquin Phoenix, a technically gifted but far too self-conscious and heavily mannered actor, he is a jumble of twitches and tics, his face seems to be trying to escape his skull with every pained, wrinkled smirk and smile. Freddie clearly has some issues in the sex department, meaning he is monolithically obsessed with it, and he's got an angry streak in him, lashing out at the slightest provocation, which is more often only perceived rather than real. He's also a drinker, of the hard stuff, the real hard stuff, chemical hooch he mixes up using anything he can find, including paint thinner. Freddie is a furious mess, a howling spirit forced to live in the gnarled limits of a human man's body. And that spirit tries to kill that body whenever it can.
Freddie can't hold a job — in one of the film's bravura sequences we glimpse the sweet rise and chaotic fall of his career as a department store portrait photographer — and is collapsing into himself, so it seems initially like a stroke of good luck that he drunkenly stows away on a yacht that is being used by Lancaster Dodd, his family, and his acolytes. The ostensible purpose of this ritzy, well-catered voyage from San Francisco to New York is the marriage of Dodd's daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to a meek fellow named Clark (the alienly appealing Rami Malek). But really, of course, this is simply another opportunity for Dodd to hold court, to live lavishly and bask in the glow of adoration as he spouts out captivating but ultimately hollow philosophy disguised as wedding toasts and genial conversation. Freddie is quickly discovered on the boat — in a scene that we deliberately, and frustratingly, don't see, Dodd and Freddie had a drunken introduction — and just as quickly becomes a strange pet or project of Dodd's. Dodd enjoys Freddie's hooch, seems fascinated by the unpleasantness of his backstory — Freddie, a child of Massachusetts' North Shore, had an incestuous family relationship and a mother in a mental ward — and might see him as his ultimate convert. Most of his disciples are flighty, nervous upper-middle-class women. They are easy prey. But Freddie here, violent feral Freddie, would represent the big get, the real win. His conversion into a higher state of consciousness would prove the efficacy of The Cause while also earning Dodd a lifelong guard dog.
That's my best guess as to why Dodd shows such interest in Freddie, despite his extreme unpleasantness and the protestations of those around him, most of all Dodd's wife Peggy, played with surprising modulations of fire and ice by Amy Adams. Peggy suspects Freddie is a spy for some anti-Cause outfit, but what she is really picking up on is his complete unwillingness and inability to change -- to sober up, to learn to control his anger, to shape his sexual hunger into something more socially acceptable. And she's right to notice that in Freddie, especially as he's played by Phoenix. Good grief is there a lot going on with this overly stated performance; it's the kind of daring, dialed-up overreaching that one does in rehearsal in order to settle back down into the appropriately human scale of the character come performance time. Phoenix never retreats though, instead curling and winding himself up into great fits of animal outcry. Phoenix has said in interviews that he studied animal behavior for the role (much of Dodd's philosophy insists that man is a billion, possibly trillion-year-old spiritual entity, distinctly not an animal) which, um, duh. Phoenix literally lurches around with his shoulders forward and arms dangling down like an ape, he thrashes and pounds around a jail cell like a trapped creature in a cage. It's a well-observed bit of physical mimicry, but it reduces the bulk of Freddie to an inhuman lump of actor choices. It's a loud, insisting, heavily detailed performance, but I'm not sure that means it's ultimately very good.
The performance is so loud, in fact, that I fear it is, in most press coverage at least, overshadowing Hoffman's breathtaking work. Here's a guy who has also studied for his role — he likely looked at professors, clergy, anyone who teaches while subtly commanding — but has digested it enough to make it ingrain to himself rather than surface and literal. The joy of watching Hoffman's performances over his career, whether they're showy like in Capote or small and practical like in The Savages, is that he exists so organically within all of them. Here he is benevolent and sternly, paternally wise when gracing his pupils with his words, but instantly red-faced and hectoring at any sign of dissent. You get the sense that Dodd is sexually stifled, that he may even lust after Freddie to some buried extent, and that he's inverted that knottiness of repression into a kind of pinched calm. There's something mesmerizingly precarious about Dodd's cool and authoritative measuredness, probably because we know that it's false, that, of course, in truth he's an improvising huckster with a heavy strain of megalomania. Hoffman's is a real performance and a real character that I'd like to watch a movie about. Meanwhile, Mr. Phoenix and his Method mumbling can go fill up a black box theater on some college campus. That's where it belongs.
Not much happens in The Master, especially not enough to justify all of Phoenix's histrionics. Freddie travels around with Dodd as we, and he, start to see the fraying edges of The Cause's grand illusion. Laura Dern pops up briefly as a devoted follower who lends the group her well-appointed manse in Philadelphia. Frequent Anderson company player Kevin J. O'Connor turns up as a somewhat skeptical associate. Freddie is tested, and tested, and tested, each "Application," as Dodd calls them, seemingly more arbitrary and made-up-on-the-spot than the last. Freddie doesn't understand the point of the Applications, and he violently lashes out against them, but in the end he goes through with them anyway. Because he is searching for something, he's after an inner purpose and peace that he's perhaps not even consciously aware that he wants. That muffled desire is what Dodd is teasing out of Freddie, though of course it's not really for Freddie's benefit. The ache and yearning is the soul juice that Dodd feeds off of, that he relies on to sustain him. In many ways Freddie and Dodd are halves of the same man, with Freddie the chunk of animalistic id, black and tar-covered and slouching, that Dodd has excised from himself with all his hokum Processing. Trouble is, Dodd realizes, he still needs that part of him, it's a part of man's makeup. And so he clings to Freddie, and Freddie oddly to him, until the relationship becomes untenable.
This is a movie about, I suppose, men (and very specifically men) in search of direction and higher purpose, which of course brings matters of faith and theology to the table. Anderson uses a frequent sea motif -- Freddie's Navy days, Dodd's idyllic cruise -- to illustrate this soul wandering, which is a rather indicating and frankly simplistic thematic illustration for such an otherwise smart and inventive filmmaker. The Master looks and sounds lovely; the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is crisp and lush (seeing the film in 70mm was a treat), while Jonny Greenwood's score is at times spare and eerie while at others a rich 1950s glissando of alluring fantasy and mystery. But it all, I'm afraid, adds up to a less than thrilling experience, intellectually and emotionally. What was so keen and fierce about Anderson's There Will Be Blood was the way its intimacy gradually opened up into an expression of American existential crisis on an epic scale. With The Master, Anderson does the reverse. He begins with big, heavy ideas of aimlessness and authority and then squishes them down into this rather small story. The proportions are off, I'm afraid, and the already delicate thing nearly completely topples over once Phoenix starts throwing his weight around.
The film probably bears repeat viewings — I'm working on a hopeful, and likely self-deceiving, theory that the whole thing is a meta experiment, that Anderson is really the Master, giving us arbitrary insight after arbitrary insight, deliberately tricking us into assuming he's saying something profound — but based on the one time, I have to count The Master as a disappointment. That feeling is mostly my own fault, of course. The product of craning my neck to see an elusive higher being, all the while failing to notice the regular-sized thing, flailing and screaming, on the ground below.