With its expansive 70 mm images, The Master almost pounces on you as it announces its epic scope and ambition – even though the impressive vistas of the sea don’t have anything to do with the heart of the film. In its intelligent, chilly essence, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is an intense, eye-to-eye war between two different yet interdependent psyches. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent as the charming, voracious, monomaniacal charlatan who needs worshippers the way he needs air, a man so much The Master that his name, Lancaster Dodd, isn’t mentioned for most of the film. Joaquin Phoenix is nearly as effective as the jittery, off-putting Freddie Quell, a GI back from World War II, belligerent yet so unconsciously needy he is swooped into Dodd’s cultish vortex almost without realizing what’s happening.
Their taut, fascinating relationship could easily have been depicted with less big-screen hoopla. And that distance between the film’s lavish visual style and its tightly-wound substance may be the reason The Master (which just opened wider around the country) is so uneven, and has evoked such love it or hate it, “It’s a classic” or “Bored to death” responses. At its best the film is too powerfully good to ignore, yet it is too flawed and at times too hollow to approach anything like greatness.
The style may not be necessary but it can be enthralling, especially in an early sequence, when the camera swoops across the ocean toward Dodd’s yacht. (The cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., was also dp on Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro and visually stunning Youth Without Youth.) In one eye-catching scene, Freddie runs on the beach – racing across the foreground of the screen from left to right -- as the yacht approaches in the background from the other direction, and we have our first glimpse of Dodd, dancing with his wife among their party guests.
It’s clear that Freddie has landed in another world, because we have already followed his nasty downward slide. We first see him as a soldier, his eyes and nose peering above a trench, evoking the World War II graffiti captioned “Kilroy was here.” (Anderson is careful and deliberate with the period touches.) Soon Freddie is humping a woman made of sand on the beach – he’s really nobody’s hero – and then is back home drinking anything that comes to hand, including paint thinner. Wandering from New York to California, unable to hold a job, he is ready to be taken in, in every sense.
And Dodd, a bestselling author who believes in past lives and the threat of space aliens, is ready to acquire another worshipper. Hoffman has never put his physical heft to better use as a man of voracious appetites: for women, food, the corrosive liquor that Freddie concocts after he sneaks onto the yacht and becomes part of the Dodd household.
Together, Hoffman and Phoenix are amazing to watch. Dodd challenges Freddie with a “Processing” session, asking uncomfortable questions - that’s how we find out that Freddie has slept with his aunt – telling him not to blink. It’s a war of wills and power that the Master doesn’t admit to and the follower doesn’t begin to understand. That central scene is shot in extreme close-ups. On a giant screen (I saw the film in 70 mm at the Ziegfeld) the men are as huge and hovering as The Wizard of Oz. The irony, of course, is that this kind of faceoff works every bit as well on a smaller scale. Freddie is a nobody, Dodd a posturer, and the big screen doesn’t make that any more or less visceral.
Seeing The Master through the gloss of Scientology is not essential either, though it helps. Despite the allusions to “Processing” and aliens (there’s no need to mention Thetans; we get the point) the film is not about any particular cult. It’s about outsized egotists and the cultists who love them. It’s about control and emotional need, and the weird symbiosis of leader and follower.
Anderson and Hoffman make sure we see Dodd more clearly than his followers, surrounding him with a few people who penetrate his veil of omnipotence. Amy Adams plays his ambitious wife, Peggy, who seems to have the longest on-screen pregnancy in movie history. Her character is positioned as a Lady Macbeth, but we never see the depth beneath her calculations. Laura Dern has small role as a disenchanted follower, and her major scene with Hoffman is terrific. We can almost see him begin to unravel. And Jesse Plemons looks uncannily like Hoffman’s son as Dodd’s son, Val, who flat-out tells Freddie that The Master is a fake. It’s part of Hoffman’s wily performance that we can see Dodd wiling himself to believe his own lies.
But because Anderson doesn’t allow – and apparently doesn’t want – us to identify with either of his main characters, he denies us any emotional attachment to the film. The Master sets itself up to be rigorous and analytical, and accomplishes that, but at the risk of turning viewers away. That’s fine, although the weak ending isn’t. Dodd gives the Freddie an ultimatum: stay with The Cause forever or leave for good. And the film ends where it started, with weak-willed Freddie. By then it’s clear that The Master might have been stronger if it had focused more on the Master himself and less on the dolt he attracted.
Flawed though the film is, Anderson is a visionary, uncompromising artist. The over-the-top claims for The Master may simply be a sign of how starved for greatness we are.