Of all the influences on Paul Thomas Anderson's American saga The Master, the life of L. Ron Hubbard ranks no higher than Upton Sinclair's Oil! and tycoon Edward L. Doheny did in There Will Be Blood. While Anderson acknowledges using Hubbard as an inspiration for Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic charlatan who heads an Eisenhower-era spiritual movement called "The Cause," don't expect a roman à clef chronicling the birth and belief system of Scientology.
The Master's focus isn't even the nature of personality cults, as in Martha Marcy May Marlene, though that's certainly one of many undercurrents to this enigmatic epic. Instead, Anderson returns to familiar themes found throughout his short but resplendent filmography: the search for a father figure or lost son; dysfunctional family relationships; and flawed men fated to self-destruction.
The biggest surprise, however, is that The Master isn't really Dodd's story—indeed, the film's title is a misnomer, referring not simply to Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) but rather the things in everyone's lives that preoccupy or even control them. The film's real protagonist is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sailor stationed in the Pacific who spends his R-and-R humping anatomical sand castles and masturbating in the surf. Returning stateside and suffering from some unspecified emotional disorder, the dissipated Freddie's only passion is mixing bootleg liquor using darkroom chemicals, paint thinner, cleaning supplies and anything else at his disposal. When he loses a job as a department store portrait photographer, he lashes out at an ideal he knows he'll never appreciate or attain. In increasingly desperate straits, Freddie stows away on a yacht being chartered by Dodd and a handful of his followers.
Dodd takes in the brutish Freddie, whom he likens to a fearful animal that eats its own excrement. However, it's never clear whether Dodd's motives are altruistic, opportunistic or even sexual. Through a system of "processing"—undoubtedly modeled after Scientology's "auditing"—Dodd seeks to exorcise Freddie's demons and assimilate him into the fold.
Encased in atmospheric amber, The Master emulates the pace and palette of There Will Be Blood—if you splice Jonny Greenwood's score for both, you couldn't tell where one ends and the other begins. Although Blood is 20 minutes longer than The Master, theater viewers may exit believing the opposite to be true. However, while Anderson's oil epic was a character-driven allegory about Americanism and religion, the writer-director came to his newest project full of big ideas but became both enamored and distracted by his formidable actors along way.
Phoenix, appearing in his first film since the underappreciated I'm Still Here, gives an engrossing, awards-worthy performance. He compresses Freddie's morass of rage, insecurity and anti-social behavior behind an inarticulate mumble, frozen sneer and graceless gait, a vessel that sometimes appears only vaguely human. Dodd—who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher"—leans on charm and polish to peddle his mix of mysticism, science fiction and dime store psychology. But he's most revealing when Hoffman flashes the anxiety and anger simmering just below his well-scrubbed facade, such as when a naysayer challenges his dogma at a dinner party or a benefactor (Laura Dern) frets over a word change to a processing question made in Dodd's second tome—through Hoffman, Dodd responds to this incident with irritation tinged with a vague surprise that anyone would notice, much less brood over such vagaries.
Together, Dodd and Freddie are two sides of the same animalistic coin—a scene in which they meet, physically and emotionally, in the middle of conjoining jail cells is unforgettable. Still, there's only so many ways to make (and remake) this point. Anderson doesn't pivot away from his two leads long enough to fully develop the many underwritten supporting characters, including Dodd's biological son (Jesse Plemons) and daughter (Ambyr Childers), and his son-in-law (Rami Malek). Amy Adams is terrific as Peggy, Dodd's wife, the power behind the throne who is part feminine ideal, part Lady Macbeth, but her performance becomes frustratingly one-note the more it plays second fiddle to Hoffman and Phoenix.
As a result, narrative opportunities are squandered. When the police show up to arrest Dodd, Anderson not only leaves viewers to assume Dodd is guilty of an unexplained financial grievance, he also wastes screen time showing Freddie yet again fighting someone (this time cops). That time could have been used to elaborate on big ideas like a historical intolerance, sometimes hostility, by the government toward nontraditional faiths in a country that promises freedom of religion.
The one question The Master does lucidly pose is whether reforming the personality of a lout like Freddie is possible or even prudent. In so doing, Anderson—an avowed Stanley Kubrick devotee who reportedly filmed portions of The Master using the actual 65mm camera used to shoot 2001—has made his version of A Clockwork Orange. It's a comparison underscored by scenes such as a dinner party in which Freddie visualizes all the ladies in attendance naked and a final shot that I half expected to be accompanied by Freddie in voice-over saying, "I was cured all right."
In one of the film's more tedious montages, Dodd assigns Freddie an "application" that involves walking back and forth across a well-furnished room and finding different ways each time to describe the wood wall and windowpane that he touches on either side. It's an exercise not unlike watching The Master, a handsome canvas that's open to interpretation, not explication.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cult of personality."