Cult Classic

I’m still not sure what The Master is about, but I can’t wait to see it again.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.

The first word of my notes on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (that I can read, anyway) is magisterial. A tautology, I know, since both words (from the Latin magister) basically mean the same thing. Anderson’s sixth feature is both magisterial, in the sense of having a kind of authoritative dignity, and masterful, in the sense of being surely and expertly crafted. And yet this movie, powerful as it was scene by scene, never quite achieved mastery over this viewer. For me, it remained a film to admire and puzzle over rather than to enter into and love—but, to its credit, The Master isn’t a work that much cares if you love it or not.

The same can’t be said for the two desperately needy men at the movie’s center, whose complex interdependency is the film’s central conflict and most passionate love story. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sailor returned from World War II who loses a series of jobs due to drinking and violent behavior. On the run from one such disaster, he stows away on a yacht that’s hosting a wedding party. The ebullient father of the bride is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder and leader of a cult-like, Scientology-esque movement called the Cause. After tasting one of Freddie’s homemade liquors (made of whatever fermentable items can be found on hand, plus paint thinner), Dodd takes a liking to this odd, unstable young man and invites him to start a new life as one of his disciples.

The struggle that ensues is so intimate that it’s hard to describe in terms of plot development. The Master (as everyone except the police calls Lancaster Dodd) systematically breaks down the resistance of the younger man through a series of sadistic recorded interrogations, a technique known as “processing.” He also begins using Freddie as a guinea pig in bizarre behavioral experiments that, in the words of the Master’s disillusioned son (Jesse Plemons), “he’s just making up as he goes along.” But the resourceful Freddie also finds ways around the Master’s practiced techniques of persuasion: Asked a serious personal question during one processing session, he responds with a fart, then breaks down in giggles. When a skeptic shouts down the Master at a social gathering, Freddie practices his own crude style of persuasion by breaking into the naysayer’s hotel room and beating him up. Gradually, Freddie and Master become enmeshed in an ambivalent, frequently hostile relationship: Are they father and son? Teacher and disciple? Lover and beloved?

The Master is propelled by the energy of the Master/Freddie dyad much in the way Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, was propelled by the enmity between Daniel Day-Lewis’ vindictive oilman and Paul Dano’s interloping preacher. But both films are about more than a single fraught relationship. Here, Anderson’s historical canvas is as broad as the 65mm film stock he uses (in part as an homage to the widescreen films of the early ‘50s, in part just because it looks fantastic). Though we never get a full account of Freddie Quell’s experiences in the Navy, the war’s shadow hangs over his every twitchy gesture, and over the whole movie. The Master takes place in a barely-postwar America whose placid, conventional exterior barely conceals a roiling collective trauma. (“Get thee behind me, Satan …” sings a cheerful Ella Fitzgerald on the soundtrack, as Freddie returns from the war with his own, harder-to-dispel demons.) Without resorting to voiceovers or expository dialogue, Anderson makes us see how personality-cult figures like Lancaster Dodd would naturally spring up at such a moment, and how deracinated souls like Freddie Quell would be vulnerable to falling under their spell.

Whatever inscrutable bond there exists between the Master and Freddie, it’s in perpetual danger of disruption by Dodd’s much-younger wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Beatifically lovely and rarely without a child on her lap, in her womb, or both, Peggy would seem the ideal wife for an aspiring cult leader. But her zealous belief in her husband’s oracular wisdom is convenient cover for a case of vicarious spousal ambition that trumps Lady Macbeth’s. In one early scene, Peggy goes on a harangue about the perfidy of nonbelievers as the Master sits nearby at a typewriter, pounding out his next nonsensical book. Though he’s studiously ignoring her, the typewriter and voice soon enter into a call-and-response rhythm, as if to suggest she’s dictating every word.

The Master is a rich, dense text, one that calls for multiple viewings to tease out details like these. Shot in bright, crisp colors by Mihai Malaimare Jr. on that now hard-to-obtain 65mm film stock, it pays homage to the look of ‘50s films without pastiche or nostalgia. The subject matter may be (loosely) historical, but Anderson’s eye and ear are resolutely modern. Jonny Greenwood’s prickly, sometimes discordant score alternates with plaintive old standards, leaving the audience in a perpetual state of disquiet. It’s a movie that seems to unfold at a distance, aesthetically dazzling but emotionally remote.

I suspect that this remoteness is intentional, that we’re not meant to be drawn into the inner lives of the Master and Freddie, or to fully comprehend what’s at stake in their slippery, ever-changing relationship. Though the characters they play remain inscrutable, Hoffman and Phoenix are as vibrantly present as they’ve ever been onscreen. Especially in their one-on-one scenes together, we’re aware of them not only as characters but as living bodies, men who might get into a fistfight or burst out laughing or break into spontaneous song at any moment. Phoenix gives Freddie a stoop-shouldered, shambling old-man gait that says more about the hard knocks he’s taken than any war flashback could, while Hoffman leavens his frighteningly intense character—a charismatic, short-tempered narcissist—with periodic bursts of antic gaiety.

Like Melville’s “Billy Budd” (whose naval setting and homosocial subject matter this film sometimes echoes), The Master tells a story that seems somehow to exceed the narrative frame the author provides to contain it. Whatever it’s about, the movie can’t be reduced to a Brokeback Mountain-style tale of repressed gay love, much less a fictionalized biopic about the creator of Scientology. Though the Master shares some significant biographical overlap with L. Ron Hubbard, the theological details of his system remain vague, and it’s clear Anderson is mostly interested in using Hubbard’s life as a springboard for thinking through larger issues of faith, power, free will, and belief. If that sounds a little abstract, that’s because, despite being transfixed for the whole of its 137-minute running time, I left the theater not entirely sure what The Master was about. I can’t wait to get back and see it again.