It’s not a stretch to say that Saturday evening’s world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master at the Venice Film Festival is the year’s most avidly anticipated movie event. Admirers of Anderson’s last feature, There Will Be Blood, who are loud and legion, have been waiting five years for his next masterpiece. The Master’s ostensible subject — L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology — has also piqued controversy among members and outsiders alike. They too are waiting for Anderson’s fearless denunciation.
Both groups can stop waiting. The Master is neither a masterpiece nor, exactly, a Hubbard exposé. It’s an overlong (2 hr. 17 min.) study of a drifter in postwar America who joins the retinue of a charismatic spieler with similarities to Hubbard and to other high-octane peddlers of the good life. And while the movie (the first to be shot in 70 mm since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet 16 years ago) is glorious to watch, it brings no coherence or insight to its two main characters: the wastrel Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or the shaman-showman Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The son of a man who died from drink and a woman in an insane asylum, Freddie has every reason to be sociopathic and takes every excuse to put his illness into action. With a “nervous breakdown” discharge from the Navy after World War II service, he tangles with psychiatrists, gets a job as a portrait photographer in a department store and picks a fight with a customer, becomes a migrant worker and poisons a fellow picker with the liquor he brews; its secret ingredient is paint thinner. On the run in 1950, he stows away on the Alethia (Greek for “truth” or “disclosure”), a private ship headed from San Francisco to Panama, and is befriended by the “captain,” Dodd, who has hatched a self-help scheme called the Cause. The older man is fascinated by Freddie’s troubled makeup and invigorated by his potent hooch. With disarming candor, Dodd tells Freddie, “You’ll be my guinea pig and protégé.”
Describing himself as “a scientist, a connoisseur … a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but, above all else, a hopelessly inquisitive man,” Dodd bubbles with jolly confidence, not satanic power; in Hoffman’s lovely impersonation, he is less Old Nick than Saint Nick. He gives potent secular sermons about “taming the dragon” and, in the film’s greatest scene, quizzes Freddie on his crimes and insecurities: “Did you ever kill anyone? Did you have sex with a member of your family? Does it bother you how inconsequential you are?” Dodd and his wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams) claim that their “process of dehypnotization” takes the subject “back beyond to the prebirth era,” that they “record everything through all lifetimes … trillions of years ago” and that hypnosis therapy can cure cancer and speed the world to peace.
All this is a light fictionalizing of Scientology precepts in its Dianetics stage in the 1950s, when Hubbard proposed that childhood traumas began not at the age of 2 or 3 but in the womb, when the fetus received hostile “engrams” from its mother’s moods and movements. Some of Dodd’s biography resembles Hubbard’s. A prolific author of pulp fiction, he saw himself as the adventure hero he put in his books, and he had the personality to convince others of his stature. At any meeting of fantasy writers, he was not the greatest talent but the largest presence. He used that charisma, more than any psychological acuity, to sell Scientology.
But the movie is no Citizen Hubbard; it’s just not that interested in Dodd’s religion or scam, except as it relates to Freddie. Another difference: Mary Sue is as invested in the Cause and nearly as mesmerizing as her husband. Standing close to Freddie, she asks, “What color are my eyes?” and when he answers green, tells him, “Turn them blue.” Their son Val (Jesse Plemons) warns Freddie, “He’s making this all up as he goes along,” but the new apostle doesn’t want to believe it; he’s just happy to be with a father figure that doesn’t want him thrown in jail.
This is Anderson’s sixth feature; except for the Adam Sandler project Punch-Drunk Love, each of the writer-director’s films examines father-son or mentor-acolyte relationships. Philip Baker Hall schooled John C. Reilly as a Vegas gambler in Hard Eight; porn auteur Burt Reynolds promoted well-hung amateur Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; TV mogul Jason Robards tried reconnecting with his sex-guru son Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and oil baron Daniel Day-Lewis battled preacher Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. Nothing wrong with filmmakers pursuing themes throughout their works; it’s a mark of personal commitment in an industry that distrusts individual identity.
The problem with The Master is that it doesn’t extend or expand Anderson’s artistic journey. Indeed, the movie violates a cardinal rule of the father-son or master-servant plot: that the acolyte will somehow change his mentor — will either fulfill his mission (in, say, a zillion buddy-cop movies) or overthrow him (your Oedipus, your Luke Skywalker). Freddie is briefly Dodd’s guinea pig, never his protégé. He would rather be Dodd’s enforcer: he beats up a skeptic and picks a fight with cops, neither of which the Master ordered or profits from. Freddie is not even Dodd’s Frankenstein monster — more his oafish servant, Igor, right down to the stooped posture (possibly a symptom of Freddie’s alcoholism).
After There Will Be Blood, which Anderson loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil, some folks suspected that The Master would springboard from Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 novel Elmer Gantry, the story of a drifter — Burt Lancaster, in the smart and zesty 1960 movie version — who enriches the ministry of the Bible-thumping Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and becomes a popular preacher on his own. No such luck. Freddie does not pick up any of Dodd’s tricks, let alone channel the Master’s powers of salesmanship and seduction; and the Cause neither flourishes nor contracts because of Freddie. When his irrelevance to Dodd’s mission becomes obvious, after about an hour, the story flatlines into repetition without development. Freddie is there, then he’s gone, leaving little significant impact on the movement or the movie.
Apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature, Anderson ignores another cardinal tenet: that a character’s early preoccupations will bear verdant or evil fruit later in the story. Freddie’s obsession is sex. On a Pacific beach, he humps the figure of a woman that other sailors have sculpted in the sand; given a Rorschach test, he identifies every image as male or female genitalia; in his job as portrait photographer, he has a quickie in his lab with another employee. Yet when Freddie enters the Cause, apart from a crudely drawn invitation to sex early on, he sparks little sexual mischief, even ignoring a woman’s hand as it tip-fingers toward his crotch. Either the satyr has been neutered or Anderson lost track of what the first part of The Master was about.
That opening 20 minutes or so sings and stings with promise. The first image, a shot of the churning blue ocean seen from the stern of a Navy ship, portends a God’s-eye view of human fallibility. (Top marks to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., on loan to Anderson from Francis Coppola’s recent indie efforts, and to production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank.) The faces of Freddie’s photo subjects have late-1940s veracity — wonderful casting, couture and coiffure. And in a magnificent pair of tracking shots, Freddie jumps onto the Alethia as it sails under the Golden Gate Bridge into the sunset. Phoenix, back in movies after a four-year layoff and his bizarro performance-art impersonation of a deranged rap artist in the faux doc I’m Still Here, makes Freddie’s misadventures after his Naval service rancid but rewarding. This early section cues viewers that they will be spending a long time in the company of a severely disturbed character who gets into fascinating scrapes with attractive people.
But the fascination wears off just as it should be peaking, with his involvement in the Cause. The two men bicker and, because even an art film needs an action scene, test themselves in a motorcycle contest. Finally, a bit too late in the proceedings, Dodd apostrophizes, “What a horrible young man you are!” Moviegoers may agree: The Master expends all its considerable skill on a portrait of the wrong man — a creature not worth Dodd’s time, or ours.