When a movie receives rave reviews from critics who say they need to see it again to understand it fully, you should treat such a recommendation as though you were Will Robinson from the old 1960s TV show Lost in Space hearing his friendly robot companion as it flails its accordion-like arms and shouts, “Warning! Warning!” You must proceed with extreme caution—unless your intention is to see that film after or while imbibing or smoking a controlled or illegal substance.
And yet I have to confess that sometimes inscrutable and pretentious movies transcend their limitations. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, released last year, was both, and yet was pretty much a knockout. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is this year’s Tree of Life, a wildly ambitious effort to create a major statement about America and manhood and faith. Set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, The Master has the crisp, sharp focus of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Life magazine photography and nearly perfect art direction.
As has long been the case with Anderson (whose notable previous works are Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood), this movie has the remarkable director-ial authority that does signify a truly great talent, and I think that authority is what accounts for the puzzled enthusiasm that The Master has earned from so many critics. They—we—see so many lousy and timid movies that when we find ourselves watching something made by a true original with a genuine eye, we want to celebrate it simply because it has a quality of artistic command for which we thirst.
And yet the admirers of The Master have struggled to come up with discerning adjectives to describe it. In so doing, they have mostly come up with synonyms for “enigmatic,” “suggestive,” and “elusive,” none of which constitutes praise in the conventional sense of the term. Summing up the consensus view of the critical community, A. O. Scott of the New York Times offered this astounding sentence: “This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief.” Yes, that’s one way to put it. Another way to put it is “put a sock in it.”
Occam’s razor offers the perfect solution to Scott’s bafflement: The reason The Master defies understanding is that there is nothing to understand. It is evident from the proceedings that Anderson took two unconnected and ill-formed ideas for movies and glommed them together in hopes he could come up with one Big Thing.
One of the ideas was to offer a fiction-alized account of the creation of Scientology, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as L. Ron Hubbard. The other idea was to offer a singular character portrait of a traumatized World War II veteran, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who has retreated into sexual obsessiveness and violence because he cannot process what he saw and did in the Pacific theater. Anderson was right that neither scenario was enough for one movie; but when he put them together, whatever logical sense each might have made on its own was destroyed by its proximity to the other.
Unless you find intriguing a character whose happiest moment comes when he simulates sex on an island beach with a woman made of sand, you are unlikely to find much interest in the twists and turns and torments of the Phoenix character. In a rare casting misstep by Anderson, who usually has the best eye in the business, Phoenix is at least 15 years too old for the part; an actor barely out of boyhood might be able to evoke the pathos of this lost soul, but as he is pushing 40, Phoenix just makes Freddie seem like a deviant psychotic beyond all reach.
Freddie simply wanders onto a boat and passes out, only to find himself the sudden disciple of its captain, a fellow named Lancaster Dodd who has created a cult called The Cause. Anderson decided he did not want to portray Dodd as an out-and-out charlatan, but rather as a complicated father--dictator-shyster-lover whose motives are not all bad. That may sound interesting, but it really isn’t; an out-and-out fraud is what L. Ron Hubbard was, and when you take the con out of the con man, you are left only with a disparate collection of behaviors rather than a believable character.
Anderson gets so lost in the pointless and incredible relationship he establishes between Dodd and Freddie—who have absolutely no reason to have any kind of emotional connection whatever—that by the movie’s calamitous conclusion, Freddie is able to discern Dodd’s location by means of a David Lynch-like dream.