When I ranked Magnolia as my top film of 1999, I often found myself in the position of have to defend it often to non-believers. Yes, it was tough, I acknowledged. Yes, it was difficult. But unlike many other works, which receive acclaim for breaking the rules, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s uncompromising visionary vista was to be applauded for creating a set of rules all his own. Anderson’s latest, The Master, is a visually arresting and highly stylized look at a similar group of those who may doubt and disbelieve.
Make no mistake, The Master, as is to be expected by a work from the leading American auteur of his generation, is as mature and confident a motion picture as you’ll find this year. Ambitious enough to evoke comparison to The Great Gatsby, it probably ranks among the savviest movies to be released since Anderson’s last opus, There Will Be Blood. A trenchant look at those who lead and those who need to be led, Master is rich and dense with ideas and images. It is also, however, an emotionally aloof experience when it could have been a wrenching one.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is our Nick Carraway this time, a literal washout after a scarring tour of duty with the U.S. Navy in World War II. Destructive both to himself and to others, he drunkenly stumbles upon a unique enclave when stowing away on a New York-bound cruise in California. Instead of being thrown overboard when discovered, he is invited into the family of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), himself a naval veteran. Dodd, the leader of an imposing cult-like group known as the Cause (whose followers refer to him as “The Master”), takes an interest in the mercurial Quell, who vacillates between stubbornness and stubborn loyalty. The Master leads Quell through a series of pseudo-psychological therapy sessions that feel more like hypnotherapy, but nonetheless produce a sort of mental excavation for the patient.
These sessions, described in Anderson’s film as “processing,” bear more than a passing resemblance to “auditing,” part of the practice of Scientology. Prior to its release, Master was seen as a parable about the oft-mocked,, little understood religion, and while Dodd can easily be read as a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard, Master can actually refer to any faith. Anderson questions the very nature of religion in his movie. There are people that want to come together in shared beliefs and rituals, and Dodd, who the film comes to regard as a nefarious fraud, has identified such followers as his prey. Religion, to him, is an enterprise to exploit. This is in keeping with one of the running themes in Anderson’s oeuvre (notably Blood): the way in which opportunity and success can lead to corruption, and the ways in which adults cloak it to make their self-serving needs feel okay. What causes Quell to rebel from the home he has found with Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams, the embodiment of steely motherhood) is the notion that to join any such group and be a follower means that he cannot always be a leader in his own life.
That’s a lot to digest, and Anderson doesn’t try to make his message accessible. Master is what I refer to as “movies for medicinal purposes.” Watch this, it’s good for you, is the general feeling while sitting through the two-hour-plus film. And while Anderson exhausts every possible filmic resource, from a terrific ensemble that includes Laura Dern and Rami Malek to Jonny Greenwood’s haunting, heavy score to Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s unforgettable cinematography (conjuring up films of David Lean, Nicholas Ray, and George Stevens), in charting Quell’s journey with the Cause, it all happens at a distance, allowing us time to take ourselves out of the film. Unlike earlier works like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, kinetic canvases that were impossible to look away from, Master mostly works at an intellectual level. Anderson has created a grand movie with plenty of breathing room, but never given a reason to exhale.
All of which takes nothing away from the transcendent performances of Hoffman and Phoenix. The latter makes Quell a mess, a man-child who wears his fear, mistakes, and ruin all over his face and body, while Hoffman shows that beneath Dodd’s veneer, he is every inch Quell’s petulant equal. As their relationship – part father-son, part master-servant, with a hint of sexual jealousy thrown in – begins to fissure, Master pokes more holes in the Cause, yet also provides more reasoning why so many people might need to flock to one. This is easily one of the most important films of the year, while, frustratingly, it remains difficult to articulate all of the reasons why. Perhaps Anderson has, again, created a new lingua franca.