As an artist whose reputation as one of America’s great working directors has been fully earned, Paul Thomas Anderson stands as one of my favorite directors. I’ve enjoyed all of his films, and his Boogie Nights (1997) remains — warts and all — as one of my favorite movies of all time. So it’s especially unfortunate that I must say that his latest, The Master, comes across as a bit disappointing. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad film by any means — it’s just as flawlessly and assuredly directed as anything in his oeuvre, and there are few filmmakers today who can match his technical skills behind a camera. No, the problem with The Master is that Anderson has no designs on entertaining his audience.
This is easily his most mysterious, dense and impenetrable film — one that gives little in the way of answers. It’s an approach he toyed with in There Will Be Blood (2007), but even that film — like the ones that came before it — ended in a climactic release. With The Master, we get hours of bluster and a little rage before the film just confoundingly peters out. And even as the credits roll, there’s a sense that Anderson has made a point — though the question becomes what that point is because it certainly isn’t spelled out, and is left, almost willfully, open to interpretation. For some, all the smoke and mirrors will make the film seem more profound than maybe it is. For others, it’ll be total hogwash. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where the film lies in between those two extremes, though, after one viewing, I’m willing to give a filmmaker as intelligent as Anderson the benefit of the doubt. Though there’s the chance that after viewings two or three I won’t be as generous. I have no clue how it will age, or be regarded in the future
The early word on the film had been that this would be Anderson’s tract on the early days of Scientology, substituting that religion’s founder L. Ron Hubbard with a fictionalized version named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But The Master is as much about Scientology as There Will Be Blood is about oil, or Boogie Nights is about pornography. Instead of Scientology, the film centers on Lancaster and his tight knit — yet volatile — relationship with our protagonist, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II naval vet with severe anger, violence, mental health issues and all kinds of issues with women. Lancaster, the charismatic leader of a cult, who’s full of crackpot and farfetched theories, decides to take in Freddie and ultimately cure him. Much of their relationship involves Lancaster viewing himself as Freddie’s “master,” despite the fact that they both might just be equally unhinged, with Lancaster better at putting on a public face and better acclimated to civilized life. In many ways, Freddie takes on the characteristics of a wild animal — savage, ill-mannered, yet loyal to Lancaster. The question the plot sets up and the end of the films raises is whether or not Freddie has become his own master, or if he’s just been house-trained. And this is the question Anderson refuses to answer for the audience.
The problem with much of The Master is that there’s no one to really root for, and there’s definitely no reason to like any of these people. Sure, there’s bits of Anderson’s deadpan sense of humor, but there are no agreeable characters here. Freddie is uncouth and angry, while Lancaster is often smug and obviously a liar. Even There Will Be Blood — which was about a greedy sociopath in Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview — had an appealing main character, though that might say more about Day Lewis’ innate amiability as an actor when put up against Hoffman and Phoenix. Despite these shortcomings, it’s still a film well worth watching, deserving of the attention it’ll get and by a director who should to be paid heed. If The Master’s biggest sin as cinema is that it doesn’t quite live up to admittedly lofty expectations, then that’s not too shabby. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.