Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has the look, feel and tone of a masterpiece. It has a distinct anti-narrative structure that allows even the moments that falter to feel organically right, refutations of the supposed need for everything in a film to hang together, to cohere, to lock into the other parts of the story like a well-rendered jigsaw piece. What’s more, they reflect the spiritual confusion at the heart of Anderson’s story, which superficially mirrors the early days of L. Ron Hubbard’s slow, steady spreading of Scientology. In actuality, it’s more like a broad extension of the themes Anderson explored in his prior film, There Will Be Blood, at least on the side of it that was more concerned with Paul Dano’s opportunistic religious leader than Daniel Day-Lewis’s oilman. The Master is about the distance between faith and reality, stability and spirit, empiricism and instinct. It is so wildly ambitious and heavy with thoughtfulness that it comes with a mighty temptation to view its most unwieldy abstractions as the highest of cinematic art.
Despite the intellectual heft and the amazing visual aplomb (Anderson’s creative capability for composing frames and sequences in fully in evidence, and the cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr. is stunning), there’s a nagging rattle a the core of The Master, a sense that Anderson’s deliberate wooliness has produced a film which gets lost in its own elliptical fiction. Joaquin Phoenix plays a World War II veteran named Freddie Quell, whose readjustment to civilian life is troubled, to say the least. There’s a fairly strong sense that this is less due to mental scars inflicted by warfare and is instead a deeply embedded inevitably of his soul. Quell’s bank shots from one stab at mundane existence to another come to an end when he sidles into the circle of author Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Initially, the appeal of Dodd seems to lie mostly in his evident affluence matched with a aggressively effusiveness. It becomes clear in fairly short order that the hearty band of individuals around Dodd aren’t just sycophants but are in fact followers, maybe even zealots. Though many of the details are left fairly cryptic, it’s clear that Dodd professes a belief system that involves past lives, emotional time travel and a containment or suppression (or outright denial) of the impulsive passions that mark humans as a particularly self-involved and impressionable part of the Animal Kingdom. Anderson is not especially interested in the particulars of this burgeoning religion, preferring to use it as a vehicle to explore the conflicts that arise when authority and orchestrated fealty eventually push up against the inevitable doubt. The director has used every tool at his disposal to make an epic about the unique brand of hucksterism that must invariably lead to spiritual rot.
The problem with his controlled chilliness, however, is that the film lacks the precise passion that its title character is devoted to eradicating. This absence could very well be Anderson’s point, an attempt to mirror his creation’s bereft nature, a bravura merging of technique and thematic intent. Regardless, the choice winds up hollowing out the film instead of transforming it. In the simplest terms, I never believed in the relationship between Hoffman’s leader and Phoenix’s faulty new adherent. The drama relies upon them being bound in a highly fraught, codependent relationship, not unlike that at the heart of There Will Be Blood. But while Day-Lewis managed to make that connection between two destructively ambitious individuals seem as tight as a crippling handshake (and Dano, let’s face it, just adequately held his own, which was luckily all that was required given the gravitational pull of his costar’s performance), Hoffman and Phoenix can’t find the right notes of needy desperation required to bound their characters to one another. They operate at too great a distance.
There’s so much weight and reward built into The Master that it can sometimes seem that the shortcomings don’t matter. Even as I fidgeted through portions of it, I couldn’t help but feel it was me who wasn’t meeting the film where I needed to, in much that same way that some old, revered cinematic deconstruction by Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Luc Godard can come across as lovely and cold as freckled marble, fascinating precisely because of the way it refuses to part with its secrets. At their best, though, those films beckon the viewer, practicing the art of enticement by giving up just enough juicy, meaty morsels of melodrama to suggest a beating heart beneath the muscle mass of post-modernistic engineering. Anderson doesn’t find his way to a similar emotional vividness, seemingly preferring to keep his film locked into its intellectual experimentalism. I concede that I may eventually warm to The Master, finding its visual sharpness and restless mental energy enough to overcome the dramatic shortcomings that weigh on me now. At this moment, I don’t see a likely pathway to that outcome. I’m sorry to say it, but when it comes to The Master, I’m just not a believer.