The Master

There will be pretense — Paul Thomas Anderson is both epic and opaque

The Master| C+

Over the span of Paul Thomas Anderson's six films, certain themes and stylistic choices have not only emerged, they have become de riguer. Surrogate fathers will try then fail to raise their adopted sons. Salesmanship will be portrayed as the ultimate expression of human will. The cast will deliver towering, even volcanic, performances. And Anderson's camera will constantly be moving, composing meticulously detailed images.

The Master has all those things and less. For those who already worship at the auteur's cinematic altar, this undercooked yet intentionally difficult film will inspire fevered accolades, repeated viewings, and probing analysis. For most everyone else, it is a murky and misshapen exploration of post-World War II American self-discovery, and male anger and loneliness.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a restless, tempestuous, clearly scarred naval veteran who is driven by animalistic urges. His life-after-war existence is dominated by drinking, screwing and fighting, as he drifts from one job and locale to another. Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman as the L. Ron Hubbard-inspired new age guru Lancaster Dodd, who presides over a quasi-religious movement called "The Cause." A chance meeting between the two turns into a push-me-pull-you relationship that places Freddie at Dodd's right hand while turning him into a petri dish for the cult's "processing" therapies (clearly inspired by Scientology's "auditing").

Hardly the damning treatise of Hubbard's crackpot theories some were hoping for, The Master is less concerned with Scientology and more interested in the intertwined needs of Dodd and Quell. Both men are lost, ready to explode at a moment's notice, and though their relationship seems to be the product of paternalistic instincts, Anderson suggests that all they really have is each other. Spirituality, loyalty and persuasion become the canvasses onto which their conflicts and, perhaps, unrequited love, are expressed. Dodd seeks answers, ludicrous as they may be (he claims that people can trace their past lives back for trillions — yup, trillions — of years), for his bestial nature. Through his made-up religion, he finds an exacting system for dealing with his all-too human frailties. But this need for introspection is lost on Quell. He knows who he is, limited as that may be, and has no desire to be anything else. Religion has no hold on those who are sure of their place in the universe, and so the irresistible force meets the immovable object. If Dodd is the master, his pupil refuses to be a servant.

As interesting as this dynamic might be at first, The Master never delivers a story that moves or satisfies its audience. Which may be the point, but that's hardly a consolation for those who struggle through its slow-moving two-hour-and-45-minute running time. Anderson's style (he's working with Frances Ford Coppola's favorite director of photography, Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) is clearly epic in scope, but his narrative approach is ambiguous, opaque and chillingly detached.

There are plenty of beautifully composed, existentially minded images of lost men juxtaposed against vast oceans and deserts, and an opening shot of Phoenix drinking moonshine from the underbelly of a warhead is as metaphorically masterful an image as I've ever seen. But after a while the cinematic affectations wear out their pretentious welcome.

More unforgivably, The Master repeats its ideas and themes — hammers on them, to be honest — instead of building toward insight or revelation. While many recall and quote the scenery-chewing milkshake monologue Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) delivers at the end of There Will Be Blood, Anderson delivered a more profound and revealing scene just moments beforehand. In it, Plainview meets with his son, whom he now regards as a business rival, and declares unconditional war. Twisted as it might be, the only way Lewis' character knows how to express love is to create a tougher, more ruthless version of himself. And thus Anderson's treatment of Americans' fanatical devotion to capitalist ideals is expressed as a perversion of parental nurturing and identity.

The Master has no such final point to make. Dodd and Quell are essentially two dissatisfied faces of the same coin, angry men who struggle to regulate their more explosive outbursts in order to function within society, and fail in varying degrees.

Which isn't to say there aren't interesting ideas bouncing around the movie. Anderson brilliantly captures the contradictory American impulses of stubborn individualism and a desire to be told what to do and think (traits FoxNews exploits with cunning success). It's as if he's saying we are sheep who refuse to acknowledge the rest of the herd.

The cast makes the film seem more complete than it is. Hoffman delivers the terrific performance you expect. Placid and self-assured on the surface, he reveals Dodd to be a roiling stew of rage underneath. Amy Adams in the underwritten role of his wife, is sensational as a gently composed yet ferociously ambitious Lady Macbeth. It's Phoenix, however, who will divide the critics. Arms locked akimbo, spine hunched in fury, mouth crooked into a maniacal smile, he wears Quell's awkward and inarticulate anxieties like an open wound. He is neither a likable nor sympathetic protagonist but for my money he's never less than electrifying. Your mileage may vary.

Much like Dodd's competing urges, Anderson is a filmmaker of contrasting influences. Though his early films seemed inspired by the social and satirical stylings of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, there has been a creeping and discordant drift toward the poetic inclinations of Terrence Malick. There Will Be Blood found an effective middle ground between abstruse aesthetics and conventional drama. The Master, which plays like an unwieldy tone poem to American rootlessness and male id, fails to establish the same immediacy or resonance. It's clear that Anderson has a lot to say. Unfortunately, his movie leaves too much of it unsaid.

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