Nobody could possibly mistake The Master for a small, unassuming, run-of-the-mill movie. Granted, every film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) is a major event — he's the closest analog to Kubrick we have at the moment, emerging every three to five years to confound expectations with something truly singular. Even his Adam Sandler movie was unprecedented.
But The Master is being treated as something extra-special. Anderson shot it in 70mm, an almost quixotic gesture given that good ol' 35mm is currently experiencing its death rattle. He chose to precede its official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival with a series of surprise engagements around the country, in one case springing it on an unsuspecting L.A. audience following a repertory screening of The Shining. Early rumors that the film was about Scientology were followed by emphatic denials that it's about Scientology, which of course only fanned the fires of curiosity and anticipation. Hell, the very title demands obeisance. In the face of all this hoopla, would we even recognize dramaturgical skimpiness if we saw it?
The Master's narrative presents an epic battle of wills that's ripe for interpretation. We're first introduced to an alcoholic, sexually frustrated Navy vet, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who still seems very much at sea in the years immediately following WWII. One night in 1950, Freddie staggers blindly onto a yacht owned by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the figurehead of a suspiciously familiar self-improvement program called The Cause. Dodd instantly takes a shine to Freddie, and does his best to indoctrinate him; Freddie, for his part, seems genuinely grateful for the attention and fellowship but instinctively rebellious regarding The Cause's methods, which straddle the thin line between Freudian analysis and the most sadistic variety of acting-school exercises.
Tempers flare. Dodd's no-nonsense wife (Amy Adams) insists that Freddie is a destructive influence. Freddie decides to look up a girl he'd been sweet on and then abandoned just before the war broke out. The two men take turns riding a motorcycle on salt flats, with the objective being to pick a point in the far distance and head for it at top speed. There's a rift, and then an attempt at mending the rift, and then a retraction of the attempt, followed by a cappella singing. And if those last few sentences don't seem to be building to anything, ding ding ding.
Which is not to say that the film is devoid of meaning — and certainly not to imply that it's anything but fascinating. Phoenix, in his first role following the elaborate multi-year stunt that culminated in I'm Still Here, gives a mesmerizingly unstable performance, coming as close to pure id as anyone since Brando; he's ideally matched by Hoffman, who transforms pedantic condescension into something that resembles a soft caress. There's a stunning shot late in the film of Freddie and Dodd in adjacent prison cells, with half the frame consumed by animal frenzy and the other half devoted to implacable stillness.
Anderson deftly suggests that these two men represent opposing faces of the national postwar character, with Freddie as stubborn, reckless individualism and Dodd as subtly Machiavellian conformity. The director also deftly suggests an unspoken, unrealized homoerotic bond underlying their contentious and codependent relationship. He deftly suggests that The Cause (which is indeed clearly inspired by Scientology) began as a sincere stab at practical philosophy, then opportunistically metamorphosed into something far less savory. He also deftly suggests that all of our grandiose ambitions can ultimately be reduced to our desire to get laid.
The problem with The Master is that it's all deft suggestion. Anderson is a born filmmaker, but as a writer, he's exasperatingly vague. His crafty modus operandi involves introducing various thematic signifiers and then declining to tackle the actual themes. All of his films suffer to some extent from this noncommittal approach, but the void is usually more expertly disguised than it is here. By the middle of the second hour, you can almost feel the resistance as various elements fail to coalesce. The final scene between Freddie and Dodd, in particular, plays like a magnificent evasion tactic — what happens is unexpected, and rich with innuendo, and perhaps even oddly moving. But it's in no way a culmination, much less a resolution.
By contrast, other recent films like Meek's Cutoff and Certified Copy end in ways that are open or ambiguous but that nonetheless seem inevitable. Anderson's genius is for the transcendent eruption: a drug deal gone bad set to an awesome '80s mixtape; a climactic rain of frogs; "I drink your milkshake," etc. The Master is the most subdued, contemplative film he's made to date, and it leaves him exposed.