Freddie Quell has just come out of the Second World War, and he doesn’t look so good. A Navy man, home at last from the South Pacific yet perpetually at sea, he’s a heap of alcoholism, sexual fixation, and volatile workingman’s grudges. Has war been a continuous trauma for him, or is it that peace is about to be? Don’t ask Freddie; he tends to laugh off questions about his deeper feelings. That might be from embarrassment, or contempt for the questioner, but definitely it is not from jubilation. Perhaps jubilation isn’t allowed, as the actor portraying Freddie is Joaquin Phoenix.
And perhaps it’s best to leave the questioning to Lancaster Dodd, who is portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and who fancies himself an unusually effective asker. Soon after meeting Freddie, for instance, Dodd practically purrs, “Would you care for some informal processing?” Never mind that Freddie, having stowed away on Dodd’s yacht, is at the time hungover and disoriented; a request so cordial as this almost makes a man want to clean himself up and go straight to the formal processing, whatever that is.
What it is, we discover and already knew, is a carefully guided emotional self-analysis, built upon summonings of previous experiences — be they from childhood or even earlier, or even much earlier. In other words, a sort of Dianetics, by way of Stanislavski’s Method. And if “The Master” isn’t quite the Scientology exposé we might have been invited to expect, it’s still very much a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and an actors’ funhouse. Freddie and Dodd acquire a hold on each other, and in their ardent exchanges of subordination and excruciation, there’s a heavy whiff of the performance workshop. This must be what Phoenix was warming up for with “I’m Still Here.” Fittingly, or flippantly, his Freddie Quell has an ironic-seeming surname.
For Dodd’s Cause, which actually is called The Cause, our Freddie the unquellable will become someone who beats up skeptics without ever himself fully buying in. The challenge of conquest might be what Dodd likes about him, but who knows? “The Master” prefers where possible to avoid such primitive storytelling tactics as catharsis or clarity of motive. This seems contradictory for a movie so full of trumped-up emotionalism, but so it goes. Only when he’s good and ready does Anderson even deliver that first below-decks meeting between his two stars. Self-enclosing variations occur thereafter, along with the accrual of lavishly designed background texture. By deduction we can say we seem to be looking at a megalomania engine, or the detailed diagram thereof. Its basic mechanics involve an adversarial duet along the lines of Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” another film whose central characters grappled mightily but otherwise refused or weren’t allowed to develop.
Hoffman’s Dodd presents himself like some of us do online nowadays: floating among clouds of sycophancy and résumé inflation, striking a high pose of being at home in the world. That his time is the early 1950s, with America at its midcentury midpoint and ready for therapy, seems for Anderson mostly like a means of abstraction. “Above all I am a man,” Dodd also tells Freddie in that first conversation, capping off a list of career highlights. We duly detect the bullshit, but it feels like signing a release to hold Anderson harmless from our hope that his movie provide some actual human beings. Genuine self-help, it should go without saying, probably is out of the question.
If “The Master” is about performance within given life circumstances, it’s also about tolerance of absent narrative consequences. Anderson’s obscurantism cultivates his mystique but doesn’t camouflage his shortcomings as a dramatist. Maybe he could use a co-writer, or a more assertive editor. (And maybe instead of that perfunctory flashback to the girl Freddie loved, a more useful moment showing how he handled boot camp.) Amy Adams, in the doubly thankless role of Dodd’s wife, does a lot of tensely aimless gazing, just as Jonny Greenwood’s score does a lot of tensely aimless noodling. What if any direction did Anderson give these people?
Shooting in 65-millimeter, cinematographer Mihai Malaimaire Jr. follows the auteur’s agenda carefully, magnifying subtext without exactly cultivating it. Camera moves tend to be lateral, tracking side to side like some beast prowling along the wall of a transparent coop. Maybe it’s for our own protection, but there is nonetheless the sense of not managing to penetrate. Then again, such are the dynamics of Dodd’s “processing.” One exhibitionistic scene even confines the guru and his acolyte to a split-screen of adjoined jail cells and contrasted affect: This is a cage match, all right, between two actors who now remind us they’ve both seasoned their careers with a certain pride of repugnance. Later a motorcycle ride in the desert broadens and aggrandizes the spatial motif — Dodd racing leftward; Freddie, rightward — and although it yields a transition in their relationship, Anderson takes apparent pains to stage the event as an anticlimax.
It’s all very mesmerizing, but that’s at least partly due to having been dusted with the residue of previously sanctified movies. In “There Will Be Blood” Anderson had Daniel Day-Lewis channeling the John Huston of “Chinatown.” In “The Master,” he’s got Hoffman doing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” This could be a way of saying that seeing a movie for the truth about L. Ron Hubbard is as dubious as doing so to fact-check the life of William Randolph Hearst. All right, but that doesn’t negate seeing a movie for the experience of a complete story.
On the subject of cult leaders and what they make us swallow, we probably ought to note that prior to Dodd’s appearance, Freddie’s the one dispensing toxic therapy. “How do you like to feel?” he asks when taking an order for his signature cocktail, a custom build of booze and paint thinner. Later this literally industrial-strength beverage helps endear him to Dodd, for whom Freddie also serves as a sort of personal mixologist, and we may wonder if later still he’ll get hired away by Jim Jones.
We may wonder a lot of things. With his twisted-up face, his girl troubles, his perpetual readiness for a fight, Phoenix’s Freddie also makes it hard not to think of another hot-headed sailor, by the name of Popeye. But what good is that, except to suggest “The Master” as a movie riff on the recent vogue of artists “untooning” cartoon characters by illustrating them realistically, or some perverse homage to Robert Altman, Anderson’s own master, who braved a live-action “Popeye” movie years ago?
Wondering about these things is at least something to do after having resigned from inferring other things, like why we ought to care about the depths of Dodd’s fraudulence, or the heights of Freddie’s truculence, or the center of attraction between them. With dramatic films, the task of inference can be privileged and invigorating — if the pending questions feel urgent. But in “The Master,” they feel academic, and dissipate accordingly. This is Paul Thomas Anderson fortifying his cult, closing his own loop. And this is one member of his audience hoping to find religion but instead just feeling processed.