Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a well-crafted and well-acted film that is perhaps a bit too self-conscious. It’s ambitious, yet its ambition is continually derailed by its unwillingness to be about anything specific. It is neither a character study nor is it a plot-driven account. Like its protagonist, a boozing vagabond named Freddie Quell (impeccably acted by Joaquin Phoenix), it is fascinating, challenging, and unpredictable, yet it is just as equally uneven, flirting with all kinds of thought-provoking dynamics, but refusing to explore them any further.
The film chiefly pertains to the relationship between two individuals: Freddie, the drifter; and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charlatan. Dodd is a man who claims himself to be a “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, [and] above all… a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man.” He is also the founder of a movement he has christened “the Cause,” which attests to bodies being vessels for everlasting souls, a faith where no man dies, but switches from body to body and vessel to vessel. However, none of that matters. From the moment we are introduced to Dodd to the very end of the film, what Anderson is keen on emphasizing is that Dodd is a quack. He never once allows his viewers to qualm about their own notion of who Dodd is. The Master’s mystic is neither persuasive nor believable, and those who walk behind him – much like disciples - must surely be either very lost or mentally deranged. It is never revealed how this man courts his devoted believers, nor why these people adhere to a man so clearly unhinged – he is a man who barks obscenities in the midst of fiery disputes and a prophet whose own son brazenly discounts him as a fraud. Perhaps these people are so lost, so in need of some sort of faith to hold on to, that they disregard their hotheaded, pseudo-intellectual master just to have something to believe in. And that is a fair justification, but that premise is never scoped out.
One might think that this notion is examined through Freddie, who clings to the Cause, eventually detaches himself from it, only to return and to disengage again. But the Cause does little for Freddie. He is more interested in its master, yet even the relationship between those two is never realized to its full potential. The relationship is especially confounded by a meandering series of scenes during the mid-point of the film, where Freddie travels from one side of the room to the other. Unfortunately, these steps to and fro, from window to wall and from wall to window, become analogous with the direction of the film for the rest of its duration. It wanders like its protagonist, never really sure of what it is or what it wants to be. Is The Master an attack on mindless cults of personality, or is it a study of the relationship between a man in need of faith and another man who holds it in his hands? It’s never made quite clear.
Another potent dynamic never fully assessed in the film is the one between Lancaster and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). In one stirring scene, as Dodd is washing his face in the basin, Adams’ character suddenly appears, and begins to lecture the man quite commandingly. She then proceeds to masturbate him just as forcefully, further illustrating the overbearing amount of control she exerts over her husband as well as the Cause itself. The following scene is the last to divulge this fascinating power-play between man and wife: Adams dictates the parameters of the Cause for Hoffman, and he types away like an insentient puppet, not once questioning his loyal matriarch. Yet that is the furthest extent to which this dichotomy is explored. Beyond this, the film merely rehashes already-established dynamics, preferring to hither and thither between wall and window, like the boozing Freddie Quell. What we are left with is a film that is made to look perfect, but is far from it – The Master is more like the Cause that it mocks so defiantly.