Buoyed up by some brilliant acting, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest character study is a jigsaw puzzle of a film. If the pieces do not quite fit together, it’s because the last piece–the story’s resolution–is missing. And yet this is a movie for hard-core movie buffs and/or newer converts for whom writer/director Anderson is, well, The Master–our country’s hope for an honestly great director.
Anderson’s last–There Will Be Blood–was a better film, but did not have the ambitions of The Master, which is about everything, more or less. The Master has a context: It’s l950, post-war America, a time, we are told, of disconnection and drift–people searching for a cause, a belief system, as we say these days, and some sort of commitment other than Romantic Love. While fragmented as an unassembled jigsaw puzzle, the film’s introduction matches the frenzied, chaotic life of one Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, never better).
Quell, held together by WWII, is directionless at the war’s end. His girlfriend has written a letter which he does not deign to answer, and their relationship has drifted apart. He’s rage-filled, maybe a little crazy, looking for a light which he can follow anywhere.
That light he finds in the person of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, also never better), the leader of a movement (or cult, if you will), who’s looking for a protégé, a true believer, and puts Quell through some “processes” that probe his realities (his false, inauthentic self and the self in hiding). Quell is intrigued. He becomes a disciple (so to speak) of this mysterious leader (who likes to be called, yes, “The Master”), who is also a sci-fi writer, and whose movement targets celebrities and the monied.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking just about now, “Isn’t all this just a bit like Scientology–at least, according to its newest enemy, screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah)?” While some critics have been quick to point out the distinctions between the film and the cult, of course it’s about Scientology–that and 50 or so other “movements” originating in the California of the l950s, all with charismatic leaders and followers as avid as if they’d discovered a new religion and a new saviour.
This Masterʻs cosmology is an elaborate philosophical system, which attempts to trace human history for trillions of years, back to when humanity was perfect. He has his detractors, but that seems to strengthen his adherents; any physical opposition to him brings out violent behavior in Quell, his rage no longer tamped down.
The scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman are so superb that the film, despite its plot, devolves into a father-son dynamic. This in turn stints on the fascinating cosmology and its implications. It’s a movie that, despite all its inventiveness, does not tell a story very well, keeping its audience spectators rather than participants. It probably has too much on its (brilliant) mind, a confusion of riches and sky-high ambitions.
And so The Master drifts a little, and is not resolved. It can be said that, for all its amazing inventiveness, the film simply does not Get Clear.