Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are adrift in their own lives, one of them masking their isolation in charismatic bravado and the other barely holding themselves together, ready to self-detonate at a moment’s notice. The only thing they seem to have is each other, not that they fully understand that, so they do what many lost souls do and seek solace in religion. Who cares if the religion is made up? That’s The Master, and it raises some excellent questions, features two of the best performances of the year and occasionally feels as inscrutable as life itself.
In hewing so closely, in concept at any rate, to the foundation of the Church of Scientology, director Paul Thomas Anderson sets for himself a difficult task. In crafting his protagonist, he was forced to develop someone desperately in need of someone to believe in, and in so doing gave Joaquin Phoenix a character with more flaws than most actors could handle. Phoenix transforms himself into a grotesquerie, a Universal horror monster of outbursts and animalistic body language, whose humanity sometimes seems limited to the extent to which we pity him. His dependency on drink and unrealized sexual urges are signs of loneliness, weakness, and seem uniquely designed to test any organized means of assistance.
It would seem, after Freddie Quell stumbles into the arms of “The Cause,” a burgeoning religion slowly sweeping the country, his troubles might be over. He certainly finds a friend in Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but they never quite bond, do they? Dodd’s process of healing, the foundation of the religion he’s invented, is a manipulative and rushed form of psychotherapy that creates a dependency on what we can call, with some perversion, the therapist. Quell achieves personal revelations but assumes he needs Dodd to push further into his psyche, making it increasingly painful when Dodd’s method seems impossible to comprehend.
And what of Dodd? The man is constantly confronted with Quell’s deficiencies, and is aware that Quell’s internal and external violence seems destined to bring ruin to his church. But still he persists, refusing to let go. It’s the ultimate test of his beliefs, to see how wretched a soul can be cured, but by the time their shouting matches devolve into a seemingly endless series of “F*ck you’s,” their connection seems deeper. Dodd has no real answers, only a more carefully calibrated system of dealing with his own frailties. He inspires others, perhaps, to inspire himself, and questioning that resolve – as many do – inspires intellectual stimulation, followed immediately by frustration and, finally, impotent outbursts only slightly more refined than anything Freddie Quell can muster.
What’s the point? An examination of any human’s inability to cope, and desperate need to relate, is a solid enough foundation when filmed with this level of intricacy and skill. But in illustrating his characters’ desperation, The Master seems to flail by itself, getting lost in the tedium of uncertainty and the distractions therefrom. The mindset is captured, the quiet, horrific appeal of a cult certain, and the cast carries the beauty of their pain throughout every scene, no matter how well they may try to hide it. It’s that feeling, that lack of vitality, that makes The Master worth filming and, in tandem, one of the least enjoyable of Anderson’s films. The vibrancy of life seems missing, even when Lancaster Dodd acts otherwise. The pain can’t be ignored, and must be pressed through to achieve anything resembling closure, and to move on to subtly greener pastures, but it’s still pain, and not something you may want to deal with. Entertainment may be somewhat scarce, but you will feel, and that’s almost enough to get by. That’s the allure of The Master himself, and that’s the value of The Master.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.