There are many things about The Master that from the outset seem to indicate that viewers are in for a stimulating, intellectual treat. For starters, it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson is certainly among the greatest directors, and though some may say he’s overly regarded, personally, his work speaks enough for itself.
Boogie Nights speaks to the tragic depths the human spirit will sink to, and has scenes and moments so harrowing, you wonder how he ever reaped the performances out of the film’s actors (then again, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Mark Wahlberg, and others involved in that film certainly are pros in their own right). Yet even within this tale of woe, there’s a sense of humor throughout as well, not always apparent, but ever-present, so as not to draw you out of the story, but further enveloped within it.
There Will Be Blood keeps its audience at the edge of its seat, in awe of how Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano can actually be THAT good. The greed…the mislaid plans…the phrase “I am in oil man…” ringing in your ears after viewing—it’s a phenomenal film. Then again, what can’t Daniel Day-Lewis do? The man could bring to life a dictionary on screen.
Magnolia remains among all Anderson’s work, his magnum opus. What Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman, and others in that cast achieved is nothing short of amazing. Of anything in his long list of works, Tom Cruise was most deserving of an Oscar (and should have won!) for that riveting portrayal of a man so lost in his own delusions then beautifully broken down by his own repentance… it’s truly something magnificent to behold. And his is only one in a line of outstanding performances under the umbrella of that momentous movie.
So with a résumé like that and more, needless to say, going into The Master, one’s expectations are high. Anderson has delivered before, so as unfair as it may be, it’s assumed that he shall again.
But unlike those other masterworks, The Master lacks depth. To be sure, it brings incredibly fine acting. It’s just that this great acting appears in somewhat of a vacuum, devoid of any real sense of story.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, i.e. the “Master” himself, the creator of a cult similar to (but clarified by the filmmakers as not being) the beginnings of Scientology and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard. Amy Adams plays his obedient and duteous wife, Peggy Dodd, in a role almost too painful to watch (especially when casting one’s memory back to Adams’s characters past in films like The Fighter, Enchanted, Julie & Julia, and Sunshine Cleaning); to see her convincing subservience and blind following of her delusional husband is rather sickening.
Perhaps most disturbing of all elements in the film, though, is Freddie Quell (played to an Oscar-nominated T by the excellent Joaquin Phoenix). There is no doubt in anyone’s mind who has seen any of his deliciously deep performances throughout his career, that Phoenix is among the finest of his generation of actors. The man inhabits the characters he plays wholeheartedly, and it is inspiring to behold. This trait, though favorable to him as an actor, makes his turn as Freddie Quell all the more frustratingly disgusting, as Quell is a post-traumatic stressed out wreck, whose actions and thoughts are as perplexingly irksome as they are mysterious and just plain creepy.
Quell finds himself as a distressed naval veteran after World War II, unable to cope with his alcoholism or sexual obsessions or extreme PTSD, and finds some kind of solace, or some form of meaning, rather, in the teachings, practices, and methods of the formidable Lancaster Dodd.
But it is precisely this relationship that is so perplexing; how can he obsequiously follow such a man? To the sane mind, it seems practically criminal to fall under such a person’s spell. Clearly these are not entirely sane people, and so in the desperate and lonely place that Quell finds himself, it does on some level make sense that he would turn to a cultish kind of following, as any kind of more traditional living would be questioned or seen as not to be trusted. Yet, despite this kind of natural progression for the depressed psyche of one such as Quell, viewers are still unable to find real meaning in the overall story director Paul Thomas Anderson wishes to tell.
Is it simply that Lancaster Dodd is a self-obsessed maniac who somehow was able to gain a group of weary souls’ trust enough to follow him into the blind pathway on which he is leading them, making it up as he goes along, as his son, Val Dodd, (played by the excellent Friday Night Lights alum, Jesse Plemons), points out to Quell one evening—despite later in the film seeming to follow right along under his father’s inherent madness? Anderson being as aforementioned a great storyteller and an even greater director could not possibly be telling only such a simple tale as that, could he?
I suppose within the unanswered mystery of that query lies the greater meaning as to the existence of this film at all. But frankly, it seems that Anderson could have told a much better story by focusing on why these characters are the way they are. Why do they exist? What is their place in the world of this movie, of this story, of this place and time herein described? Without any real sense of the why being told here, it’s hard to feel any sense of care for what happens to anyone involved. And consequently, viewers are left at the end of the film feeling a lackluster sense of: “meh,” rather than the awe-stricken sense of wonder and preponderance at what superior work was just witnessed, such as what feelings arise after viewing There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, or especially Magnolia.
Each artist’s work should certainly be taken on its own merit and not solely to be seen as “in comparison” to another. Yet, with such strong examples of great art having been laid on the groundwork by and before him, it’s hard to look past them and see The Master as belonging to the same wondrously elevated subset of cinema.