Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man constantly in motion — unless he’s passed out drunk. He’s a jittery career drifter, overflowing with lust and rage. Aimless. Dangerous.
While fleeing a crime scene, he sneaks aboard the party yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a “scientist and connoisseur” profiting from the burgeoning faith-based organization he has founded called the Cause.
“You’ve wandered from the proper path,” Dodd informs him.
“The Master” is a character study involving the friendship, alliance and eventual clash between this animalistic transient and enterprising rhetorician. It’s a film composed of tremendous individual scenes. But it often struggles to hold together as a functional, compelling story.
Set in that mythic “On the Road” span between the end of World War II and the rise of McCarthyism, “The Master” represents the latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. It fits with his previous acclaimed efforts “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” as an epic account of a shady subculture, rich in period detail and memorable performances.
It’s also saddled with controversy. The film draws its subject matter from the Church of Scientology, which was founded by Lafayette Ronald Hubbard in the 1950s. (No wonder that Anderson didn’t reunite with his “Magnolia” star Tom Cruise on this project.)
However, those looking for an exposé on the Hollywood-centric religion won’t quite get one. “The Master” is not a story that takes potshots at easy targets. It’s an ambitious think piece analyzing the interaction between leaders and those they lead.
This collision results in some of the most mesmerizing sequences of the year. Dodd takes Quell through a “processing” session, breaking him down emotionally through a series of probing questions. The conversation somehow transcends mere “good acting” or “strong writing,” achieving a penetrating depth that is unsettling on many levels.
Equally unforgettable is a scene where the two men share side-by-side jail cells following Dodd’s arrest on fraud charges. Quell responds with fury, smashing parts of his cage to bits. In counterpoint, Dodd casually observes the destruction as if watering his lawn. It’s a perfect embodiment of their yin-yang connection. (Quell’s dark features contrast Dodd’s light ones, and his slurring, raspy voice — which echoes Heath Ledger’s cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain” — stands against Dodd’s perfect diction.)
Dodd’s assessment of Quell — “Your fear of capture and imprisonment is an implant from millions of years ago” — only angers the young man further.
Yet the fundamental obstacle that prevents “The Master” from reaching the level of Anderson’s best efforts is Quell himself. His character simply doesn’t make sense. Quell is a loathsome creature who becomes toxic to those around him. Other than concocting homemade drinks laced with paint thinner, he doesn’t provide any usefulness to Dodd. How this sneering loser becomes a member of the Cause’s inner circle is baffling. The leader keeps him around only because the structure of the movie demands it.
Anderson goes to great lengths early on to show how the Navy veteran is defined by his base impulses, specifically an obsession with sex. But this never amounts to a payoff. Will Quell make a pass at Dodd’s pregnant wife (Amy Adams)? Will he force himself on Dodd’s horny daughter (Ambyr Childers)? Nope. These plot strands are abandoned as quickly as they’re presented.
In an inexplicable scene, Dodd performs a song to a room full of cocktail partygoers, and then every woman in the room becomes suddenly nude while the concert continues unaffected. It’s meant to convey Quell’s skewed perspective, but it comes across as purposeless. Worse, it feels exploitative.
Like the quasi-religion introduced in Anderson’s provocative film, “The Master” poses far more questions than it can satisfyingly answer.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
•A.O. Scott, The New York Times:
“It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.”
•Christy Lemire, The Associated Press:
“If you like answers, you will feel frustrated. And yet, as fond of ambiguity as I usually am, I still felt a bit emotionally detached afterward. Wowed, for sure, but not exactly moved.”
•Claudia Puig, USA Today: “Enthralling, ponderous and elusive in equal parts. Aiming for epic, it’s undeniably thought-provoking, but too ambiguous to fully satisfy.”