There are few cinematic events more noteworthy than the release of a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Though the director only had five features under his belt before the release of his latest work, each one, to a varying extent, is regarded as a masterpiece. With the release of The Master (a title that Anderson is no doubt used to bearing himself), it’s no wonder that audience expectations of the director’s new work are high.
Luckily, there’s little need to curb the hype. Once again, Anderson rises to the occasion.
The film opens with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a sex-obsessed and hot-headed veteran of World War II’s Pacific theater. V-J Day triggers Quell’s aimless cavorting through a number of low wage jobs until he drunkenly stumbles onto a yacht filled with the family and closest friends of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new religious movement known as The Cause. Dodd takes a liking to Quell, who soon becomes Dodd’s right-hand man as Dodd leads his congregation and tries to spread his message to the world.
Like There Will Be Blood before it, The Master is very much a character piece, focusing on the relationship between its two leads. In that respect, it’s entirely successful. Phoenix and Hoffman are world class performers at the top of their games, playing off each other beautifully in every minute they share onscreen. An early scene in which Dodd subjects Quell to an intense Q&A session as a form of psychological processing could win either man an Oscar. And though the two characters couldn’t be more different, they form a deep and believable bond with each other.
That being said, however, it still remains to be seen whether the front-and-center placement of the characters do anything to alleviate the already overwhelming comparisons between Anderson’s film and real-life issues.
Much has been made of the degree to which the film is an allegory to Scientology. But though the parallels are inescapable, the story functions perfectly well when viewed independently of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s movement. It could be argued that The Master does not mean to call into question any particular New Age belief system. Instead, the film takes a skeptical attitude towards anyone who creates something approximating a religion of which they themselves are the focus.
Never is this more apparent than when a New York gathering is interrupted by a skeptic who doesn’t buy into The Cause’s claims. Dodd attempts a rational defense, but simple and persistent nonbelief soon causes him to snap and expose that he and Quell are both just as easily provoked: The former emotionlessly beats victims while the latter flies into a passionate verbal rage when his righteousness is challenged. It’s one of several momentary lapses that demystify the leader as just a flawed individual who happens to be very good at getting people to listen to him.
If anything, Dodd receives a largely sympathetic portrayal; he’s not a willful manipulator so much as a man who has started to believe his own hype after years of interacting with devoted followers. The most prominent member of the flock is Dodd’s wife, played by a severe Amy Adams, who has no time for anyone not entirely committed to extending her husband’s influence. She’s the worst kind of believer — the type who thinks a crusade is actually helpful.
But this film isn’t particularly interested in exploring a cult’s effect on its members. Quell himself never really subscribes to The Cause’s doctrines, although he still tries to expand his mind in a thrilling, entirely cerebral take on a “training” montage.
Yet despite his failure to fully engage with the movement itself, Quell remains Dodd’s fiercest, most loyal defender, quick to assault anyone who expresses any doubt over The Cause’s legitimacy while harboring no deep-seated faith of his own. For all the acclaim Dodd has won through his writing and charisma, it’s Quell’s simple dependency on him that engenders the greatest dedication.
That seems to be what Dodd might need the most — someone who likes him without necessarily believing every word he says. That very element of doubt makes it the most honest relationship in the film — a friendship that can be cringe-inducing one minute and surprisingly hilarious the next. Throughout The Master, the relationship remains fully plausible. This is a film that feels like it never could have been made any other way.
The same can’t be said about The Cause’s beliefs. A few sequences suggest Dodd might be making up the whole religion as he goes along, that he’s floundering aimlessly and that all who subscribe to his teachings are fools. This is a film that questions many faiths.
Rest assured, though, that it reaffirms this: Paul Thomas Anderson still knows exactly what he’s doing.