Silver Screen: The Master ****1/2
Paul Thomas Anderson continues his move toward the expressionistic in The Master, a movie about the search for meaning that demands you search for its meaning. It's another ambitious, overpowering film from Anderson-- the title might as well refer to the director also-- but it's also his chilliest, most evasive work.
The Master opens with a deliberately paced montage of scenes depicting the early adult life of Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy man during World War II. Already impulsive and uneducated, Freddy is reduced to an almost atavistic state by his time in combat. An early scene depicts bored sailors on a beach sculpting a naked woman from sand; Freddy can't stop himself from wildly humping it, first to comic effect, then to another effect altogether. The other men wrestle away their primal aggression, but Freddy retreats into bottles of noxious homemade spirits.
After the war he's set adrift on a sea of booze, floating from one job to another with disaster never far behind. He's a fallen creature, singularly unlikable, but Phoenix finds empathy in him as a haunted beast with at least a streak of sensitivity. Yet another petty scam leads him to a chance encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual eccentric who has founded a pseudo-scientific self-improvement regimen that's not accidentally similar to the early incarnations of Scientology. Make no mistake, Dodd is no stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard, but he's certainly inspired by him, down to his mercurial personality and loathing of psychiatry.
Dodd has amassed a cadre of followers after the publication of his book The Cause. He's maligned by mainstream institutions and spends his life as a kind of genteel fugitive, fleeing civil lawsuits by moving from state to state to give seminars and hold court with his admirers. He takes an instant interest in Freddy and his chemically enhanced alcoholic concoctions, much to the dismay of his dogmatic wife Peggy (Amy Adams). She sees Freddy as an unpredictable and uncontrollable force from the outside world-- and so does Dodd. Freddy's biological children (Jesse Plemons and Ambyr Childers) gradually see Dodd as a threat to their father's affections. Yet Freddy's inscrutability makes him as fascinating to Dodd as the guru's assurances of greater meaning beguile Freddy. The movie's lowercase-E existential conflicts play out in the push and pull of their intellectual engagement, which inevitably hardens into conflict.
Perhaps the most essential, clarifying line comes when Dodd asks wayward Freddy, “Do you think you can be the one man among millions who can serve no master?” The question is particularly telling in that Dodd seems to implicitly include himself among the multitude of servants. But Anderson has no intention of letting us off with a simple answer-- Freddy will not redeem himself by a simple choice of individualism over religion. His search for meaning seems as low and aimless as any, inelegant even in its nobility.
The Master is an astonishing movie, rendered in big, beautiful images and intense performances all around. Anderson remains both eminently controlled and audacious. He's unquestionably one of America’s best working directors.
But The Master is not an entirely satisfying movie. It engages almost entirely on a cerebral level. The problem isn't that The Master shows little interest in being conventionally entertaining, it's that it never makes a serious move toward emotional engagement. Anderson gives us a lot to think about Freddy and Dodd, but nothing much to feel about them. Scenes are meticulously composed and layered with meaning, but they're sometimes off-puttingly inanimate.
Anderson seems intent on muting the flares of stylization that are sometimes tagged as gimmickry. Forget about the ephemeral shimmering of blue lights in Punch Drunk Love, the Altmanesque pans of Boogie Nights, much less the divine intervention of Magnolia-- The Master is nearly stifled. The result may be less affected-- although I believe Anderson has always earned his affectations-- but it also results in fewer singular moments and scenes that work independently. Other Anderson movies are littered with great moments that are independently dazzling: think of the dizzying tour of the TV studio in Magnolia, Boogie Nights' glittering montages, There Will Be Blood's riveting, wordless prologue.
The Master's one great standalone scene comes when Dodd first puts Freddy through processing (akin to the Scientologists' technique of auditing). It's an interview-style sequence in which the large-scale conflict is compressed-- the intimacy of the interaction plays evenly with the enormity of the themes. Here there is not just an articulate discussion of humanity but also the crackle of the real thing-- it's the kind of moment that's a little too elusive in a movie that at times seems to overprioritize elusiveness.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.