‘The Master’: His own universe

September 10, 2012

Martin Scorsese makes movies that seem fueled by the adrenaline of passion. Terrence Malick’s films seem to float on the evanescence of sense memory.

And Paul Thomas Anderson? Given the evidence of “The Master” and his last film, “There Will Be Blood,” I’d offer this: Anderson seems bent on making movies that challenge the viewer to figure out what he’s really about.

“The Master” feels as though it were constructed from all the stuff cut out of another, richer movie. You get the feeling from “The Master” (as you did from “There Will Be Blood”) that, somewhere, there is a bigger, more fulfilling picture that Anderson isn’t revealing. Instead, he focuses on a character tangential to the main story, showing us only his glimpses of the central action.

Not that Freddie Quell, played with clenched-jaw energy by Joaquin Phoenix, isn’t an intriguing character. As Anderson imagines him, Freddie is an id on two legs, first glimpsed as a sailor in the South Pacific during World War II. When the war ends, he musters out to a mental hospital, then eventually shifts to civilian life, working as a department-store portrait photographer.

But he’s got a drinking problem – and not just that he drinks too much. He’s like a mad-chemist mixologist, blending everything from paint thinner to photographic chemicals with actual liquor, tossing in some sugar to mitigate the taste, straining it all through a baguette (as though that will filter out the poison).

Still, while the movie treats his drinking as an issue, it never pauses to consider the toxins he’s ingesting. And it never questions whether his stooped posture, hair-trigger temper, violent impulses – or the weird, Dick Cheney-ish, side-of-the-mouth speaking style Phoenix affects – might be the result of drinking industrial-strength chemicals. (At one point, he’s seen guzzling propellant straight out of a torpedo amidships of his battle cruiser.)

After putting one of his pals close to death with just such a concoction, Freddie runs away – then stows away on a boat headed from San Francisco to New York. The boat is in the care of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a writer and philosopher whose book, “The Cause,” has earned him the sobriquet “The Master” among his followers (though the boat itself apparently belongs to one of his benefactors).

His acolytes believe that Dodd’s theories – about past lives impinging on present ones – and his hypnotic methods (which he calls “applications”) could end fear, cure disease and save the world, if only people will listen.

So when Freddie joins his entourage, it’s Charles Bukowski meets L. Ron Hubbard. Freddie obviously is a tortured soul, plagued by memories of a young girl he loved before the war but never returned to – and also by his drinking, what he’s drinking and his apparently constant state of sexual arousal. He seems like conversion-bait, ripe for reeducation by a magnetic figure like Dodd.

As played by Hoffman, Dodd is effortlessly charismatic: at once seductive, charming, powerful and all-knowing. His spiels flow without a hitch – poetic, insinuating, seeming to reveal unspoken truths. But Hoffman also reveals his grandiosity, his impatience with doubt, his fiery temper when questioned.

While it’s obvious what Freddie sees in Dodd (or thinks he sees), Anderson never really offers a clue to what Dodd sees in Freddie. Dodd practically adopts the boozy reprobate (who he calls “a scoundrel” to his face, though with a smile), while the people around him keep telling him that Freddie is a destructive (as well as self-destructive) force, inimical to what Dodd is trying to accomplish.

Does Dodd view Freddie as some sort of purely natural being? A life force? A lizard-brain walking around in the form of a man? Does Dodd see him as a reclamation project? A subject for redemption? A kindred spirit?

Anderson doesn’t explain. Anything.

Obviously, he shouldn’t have to explain what he’s doing. But you walk away from “The Master” shaking your head, thinking, “What the hell was that?”

As you watch the film, you’re fully conscious of a determined artistic vision – but that vision is also determinedly oblique at best, opaque at worst. You’re never not aware that everything is there for a reason, but the reasons seem either arbitrary, perverse, misguided or unknowable.

No doubt this film will have its defenders. And it does have its virtues, including Anderson’s ability to prickle you with discomfort and compel you with its discipline. His work with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who shot Francis Coppola’s last three features) can be haunting and visually stunning, even emotionally impactful.

The performances, particularly Phoenix’s white-knuckle characterization as the demon-riddled Freddie and Hoffman as the forceful and canny Dodd, are never less than fascinating, even when what they’re actually doing either doesn’t make dramatic sense or seems starkly inconsequential.

This is a work into which it is easy to read whatever you’d like. It could be limned as a story of the pernicious nature of cults, the susceptibility of its followers or the culture that rejects new thinkers as heretics. Anderson makes a point of never laying his cards on the table. Critics who admire it will, no doubt, harken to one or more of those themes and embrace the indirection of Anderson’s storytelling.

But make no mistake: While “The Master” is decisively made, it is also a movie that constantly forces you to play catch-up, to figure things out for yourself because Anderson is apparently operating on a level that disdains something as mundane as actual meaning.

It’s easy to say that you get out of “The Master” what you put into it. But Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be withholding several crucial pieces to the puzzle, while calling it complete.

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