If Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was awaited with breathless anticipation by legions of film critics — here, finally, was a new film from the auteur behind 2007’s near-masterpiece There Will Be Blood — it was probably awaited with something more like dread by another influential movieland community: the adherents of the Church of Scientology. The plot of The Master was shrouded in secrecy, but it was rumored to be a thinly veiled portrait of Scientology’s post–World War II origins, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a charismatic, cult-founding mountebank with a more-than-coincidental resemblance to the late L. Ron Hubbard.
The rumors were true enough, but Scientologists who slipped into early screenings probably left feeling more relieved than outraged. Like There Will Be Blood, in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s ruthless oilman struggled for, well, mastery with an empire-building young revivalist, Anderson’s film portrays religion almost exclusively in instrumental terms — as a lever for gaining various forms of power, and as a way of imposing a kind of artificial order on the chaos of the world.
But The Master isn’t really an exposé of a religious con man on the make — an Elmer Gantry with auditing instead of faith healing. Its view of religion, while cool and disenchanted, is ultimately somewhat more positive than that. Indeed, there are times when Anderson’s movies almost seem to be making the case for the practical virtues of a cult.
That’s because his main subject is not Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the sleek and charismatic magician who promises wholeness and well-being to adherents of what he’s dubbed “The Cause.” It’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged, shell-shocked, drunken ex-Navy man struggling to make his way in the peacetime landscape of the late 1940s. The movie’s opening act follows Freddie as he sabotages himself in love and work alike, and ends up as a drifter along the Southern California coast. Stumbling away from a failed stint as a migrant laborer, he slips on board a large and lit-up yacht, docked and thronged with partygoers. When he awakes the next day, the boat has lifted anchor and taken to the sea, and its commander — Dodd himself — has adopted Freddie as a follower and muse.
What follows is mostly an exploration of a tangled master-acolyte relationship, with Hoffman and Phoenix elbowing the rest of the story to the margins of the screen. We get some sense of the Scientology-esque ideas with which Dodd builds his movement — a blend of talk therapy and hypnosis, gnosticism and intergalactic hoo-hah. We get a fascinating, too-truncated portrait of his family life, with the talented Amy Adams playing against type as his steely, pregnant wife and Jesse Plemons popping up here and there as his disillusioned but still dutiful adult son. We get glimpses of Dodd’s dark side — his anger, his paranoia, his willingness to part fools from their money and women from their virtue.
But mostly we see what the master-follower relationship has to offer those involved. We see what Quell gets out of it — how the mere acknowledgment of fallenness (Quell has incest in his past and psychosis in his family tree) can be a doorway to self-knowledge, how even arbitrary rituals and practices can lend a necessary structure to a human life, how valuable a sense of belonging can be in a mass society where ordinary bonds have frayed.
And then we get to see, as well, what Dodd takes from his difficult, erratic follower. Quell represents the animal side of human nature that his master’s official philosophy claims to have transcended. He recognizes, enables, and relates to Dodd’s own carnal impulses in ways that the cult leader’s family and other followers do not. And he is uninhibited enough to actually enact the kind of violence that Dodd’s own rages suggest that he would like to visit on his critics and persecutors.
Unfortunately for the viewer, a fascinating psychological dynamic alone does not a successful movie make. As a director, Anderson has always had plotting problems. His Magnolia famously ended with a jarring, deus ex machina hail of frogs, and he maimed There Will Be Blood by leaping forward from what felt like a middle act to an unearned Grand Guignol finale. In The Master, he fails in the opposite direction: The story slackens and diffuses as it goes along, losing narrative momentum and limping to a finale that’s elliptical and pretentious without being particularly interesting.
There’s also a problem with the way the movie’s main character is written and portrayed. It makes sense that Phoenix’s wounded Quell would be attractive to a cult leader in search of followers, but he’s clearly supposed to be attractive to other people as well — and particularly to women, from a salesgirl at the mall where he briefly works to the teenage girl back home he idolizes but can’t bring himself to touch to Dodd’s own beautiful and married daughter, who makes a pass at him.
Yet as Phoenix plays Quell — gaunt and hunched and awkward, wearing his mental and emotional deficiencies on his face — it’s almost impossible to believe any of this. It feels like Anderson let Phoenix run away with the character, delivering an acting clinic that should have been dialed back for the sake of verisimilitude and plot.
As with the performance, so with The Master as a whole. Like all of Anderson’s movies, it’s infused with brilliance, but as in too many of them, the brilliance never quite coheres enough to make the film successful as a work of art. As is true with Lancaster Dodd, Anderson’s mastery of his medium can intoxicate, but what he’s selling seems less impressive the more you scrutinize its weak points. He’s some kind of genius, without a doubt — but in cinema as in religion, genius alone is not enough.