There is a difference between visually arresting and narratively shallow. There is a difference between intriguingly ambiguous and thematically under-developed. There is a difference—and it is all the difference—between films that succeed, despite their weaknesses, and films that do not, no matter their strengths. And it is in those maddening, frustrating, nearly imperceptible gaps that Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master resides. It is a movie in which nearly everything works, and yet, at the end of its 150 minutes, one feels that all of this excellence—the careful direction, the lovely cinematography, the fine performances—has been in the service of something vague and forgettable. It is a film that aims for importance, but fails to find meaning. It is a film that demonstrates mastery, but falls far short of beauty.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a WWII Navy veteran adjusting—or failing to adjust—to civilian life in the years following the war. Suffering from what might have been called "shell shock" at the time, and what we might recognize as posttraumattic stress disorder, Freddie is an angry, violent, emotionally and sexually troubled man, moving from odd job to odd job and existing on various lethal concoctions he makes from alcohol and whatever hazardous chemicals (engine fluid, paint thinner, photo developer) happen to be at hand.
One night, in 1950, Freddie crashes the shipboard wedding of a young woman (Ambyr Childers) who turns out to be the daughter of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd—most commonly referred to as "the Master"—is the charismatic founder of a system of belief called The Cause, which involves past-life regression, trauma rehabilitation, and a method of self-improvement designed to "do away with negative emotional influences," remind human beings that they are not animals, and restore them to a "state of perfect." Freddie, who seems wholly animal, and far from perfect, is an unlikely candidate for conversion, but Dodd takes the younger man in as his faithful acolyte.
The two men are nearly polar opposites: Dodd is confident, urbane, and lives on the adoration of others, while Quell is furtive, feral, and alone in the world. Both actors are very good here, in different ways, and the chief pleasures of The Master are to be found in watching them square off. Phoenix has the more emotionally showy role, and delivers an intense, twitchy, inward-looking performance (aided in no small part by Anderson's fascination with his leading man's craggy, complicated face). He borders on overplaying his quiet, brooding, underwritten character, while Hoffman underplays—brilliantly—his flashier role: casting is one of Anderson's strong suits, and his choice of Hoffman for his showmanlike cult leader—over a more traditionally attractive, more extroverted actor—is a masterstroke, lending layers of complexity and intelligence to what might have been a simple snake-oil salesman.
These two performances—and that of Amy Adams, as Dodd's fiercely pragmatic wife—are well worth the price of admission here, but they ultimately just lend themselves to the accumulated frustrations of The Master. It is a gorgeously filmed, beautifully acted movie, but at the end of its two-and-a-half hours I couldn't begin to tell you what the film is really about. The story is simple—it focuses almost exclusively on the relationship between these two mismatched men—but the point of the story eludes at every turn.
Is it an exploration of pseudo-religions, and how they prey on lost and lonely souls like Freddie? Yes, in part, but Anderson seems to have only a passing interest in exploring the seductive indoctrination techniques of such cults, and he is almost completely disinterested in exploring questions of faith. (The question of how much of The Cause Freddie ever really buys into should be important, but in fact it is scarcely addressed.) Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard may be the basis of Dodd's character, but anyone hoping for insight into that religion—let alone an exposé of its founder—will be sorely disappointed. I knew virtually nothing about Scientology going into The Master, and that's exactly what I knew about it coming out: Anderson is not tracing the rise of that—or any—religion, nor does he really explore the phenomenon in any meaningful way. The culture of Dodd's strange belief system is only the setting for The Master, not its subject.
Is The Master a film about post-war America? Certainly Anderson has a gift for representing—and an obsession about—certain periods in U.S. history, and Dodd's charlatan—who wears a cowboy's six-shooter in the second half of the film—is a quintessentially American figure. There are moments when The Master seems to be edging towards a view of Dodd's improvised religion of perfection as a metaphor for a post-war vision of American exceptionalism. But Anderson shows us so little even of the culture of Dodd's religion—let alone its place and attraction in the larger society—that this avenue of interpretation, too, is all but closed to us.
Is The Master about sex? The film is full of odd sexual imagery that sometimes suggests a terror of women and sexuality. (We first meet Quell on a beach, in the act of humping the anatomically correct woman his naval mates have made out of sand: what begins as a drunken joke becomes a weirdly homoerotic show, and then degenerates further into an uncomfortable demonstration of self-degradation and social disconnection.) Dodd's religion seeks to sublimate man's animal impulses, and so the tension between sexuality and spirituality would offer itself as a likely theme—with Quell's base urges contrasting with Dodd's intellectual self-repression—but this is simply another undercurrent that never moves to the forefront. (The attraction between the two men—and particularly Dodd's attachment to Quell—might suggest latent homosexual feelings, but—apart from a quick bout of wrestling and a bizarre serenade—neither the film nor the actors seem to be playing this subtext. So this, too, remains one of the many maddeningly undeveloped threads in Anderson's emotionally murky story.)
We are, ultimately, left with a film that is about the relationship between these two men, and that would be enough if it ever paid off. But nothing ever seems to develop in The Master. We learn virtually nothing about where either man begins: despite lots of teasing, we never discover anything about what drives Dodd, or about what haunts Quell. And their strange friendship has no arc: neither man seems to change the slightest bit from the beginning of the movie to its end. How much can we be expected to care about a relationship that leaves both parties so unaffected? And how much are we supposed to care about a film in which that relationship is the sole focus of our attention?
It is not even a question that Paul Thomas Anderson has tremendous artistry as a director, and one suspects that he could film a dog food commercial and have it appear to be a work of great significance and beauty. But that is exactly the problem with The Master: it relies too heavily on its aesthetics and performances, to the point where the film is all craft, and no content. Anderson may know what it all means, and why he thought this story worth telling, but whatever subtext he thinks he has layered into his movie never rises close enough to the surface to be detectable. The Master is probably Anderson's most restrained picture, but it is so tightly restrained that it simply comes across as cold, detached, and ultimately empty.
There is a difference between pretty and shallow. There is a difference between subtle and underwritten. And, in its failure to find any real power or truth in its emotionally muddy drama, there is a huge difference between The Master and a masterpiece.