There seem to be two schools of thought about this film. One is that it is a modern masterpiece; the other is that it has some excellent parts, but that it fails to live up to its promise, and the claims made for it by its admirers. Much to my disappointment, I am in agreement with the second school. See it, but prepare to be underwhelmed.
It's impossible not to review a film with some sense of context. The fact that this is a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose previous work includes There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love means that I approach his latest movie with high hopes, especially when so many other critics make grand/grandiose claims for its genius, But the evidence for this being as good as its predecessor(s) simply isn't there on the screen.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is washed up, both literally and metaphorically. The war is over, and he's an unwanted sailor on the beach, having sex with a sandcastle woman, getting fired from his role as a photographer for violence, and on the run after poisoning a man with home made brew. The world drops him on a boat about to set off for a party/cruise, and he wakes up to find himself in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a jovial, self-made philosophical and psychological entrepreneur. Let us just say, for the sake of argument that he is 2 parts L Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology) and one part Orson Welles (brilliant and unreliable showman) – a snake oil salesman selling hope and meaning to the unwary and the unwise – mainly women. Dodd takes Quell under his wing, attracted by the younger man's energy, passion and the homemade hooch (at the end of the film, there's a suggestion that there is a level of sexual attraction).
Dodd is a man on the make, but also – sometimes – on the run. He peddles his cod theories, under the brand of The Cause, and meets with a mixture of credulity and cynicism. Quell, easily convinced of Dodd's genius, becomes a kind of enforcer, quietly beating the crap out of anyone who crosses his master. But he too has to be tamed, and undergoes hours of processing which might better be described as programming, although it is not clear if his innate lust for life (mainly through sex, drink and violence) is ever really curbed. In fact, there's an awful lot that isn't clear throughout the film.
Starting small, it is hard to hear a good deal of what Phoenix says. His is a Method-like performance, very physical, and almost mannered, as he sticks his elbows out, walks with a strange lurch, and barely opens his mouth when he speaks. More than that, though, he seems more like a characterisation than a character. Rather like Driss in Untouchable and Ali in Rust and Bone, Freddie is more of a signifier than a whole person. He represents the id, the unquelled drive to self-fulfilment which is unrestrained by social norms. The problem with that kind of role is that it probably looks better on the page than it does on the screen. A bigger issue, however, is the question of what precisely the film is for. I can see that it is to do with father/son and master/slave relationships, that there is a good deal of anti-Scientology material, that the issues of charlatanism and credulity among its followers are omnipresent, as well as a number of other themes. But the trouble is that themes are not enough of their own.
In the same way, there are lots of powerful scenes in the film, some of which are memorable in themselves, but there doesn't seem to be any narrative underpinning to connect it all together. Even the mystery of Freddie's lost love is never satisfying. Doris (who bizarrely marries a man called Day, thus becoming a but not the Doris Day) is a fresh faced teenager who he claims to be in love with some years ago, but has never returned to claim. Her attraction seems purely theoretical, and since Freddie is the same age in the past as he is in the present, it's hard to make sense of whether we're seeing a flashback or a fantasy. But so many of the elements of the film are frustratingly left dangling, as if we have to make up our own minds about the meaning of the film, with just a few random clues to help us. There's a fine line between making the audience do some work, and leaving us grasping at straws, and for me, Anderson goes too far in the latter direction. It's as if he has decided to make a kind of impressionistic film, full of dabs and daubs, but whereas it's pretty clear what your average Impressionistic painting is meant to represent, The Master is impossibly elusive.
It gives me no pleasure to be critical of this film or the director. Anderson is one of the few genuinely brilliant directors working today, ambitious, innovative, daring and – usually – successful. But I can't join in the chorus of praise just because I admire his other films, and for fear of not being thought bright enough to have grasped all his intangible purposes. It's not quite a case of Emperor's New Clothes, but it does share with Malick's Tree Of Life that sense of the whole being a good deal less than the sum of its parts.