The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s exploration of the beginnings of a Scientology-like cult during the 1950s, is a difficult film to get through. While the production values are as high as any other of Anderson’s films, and the performances as impressive, there’s an absence of any sympathetic characters and I struggled to care about anything that was happening.
Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a man unable to function in civilian life after fighting in the Pacific (though it’s not clear that he functioned all that well in the Navy either). He stumbles into the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a self-styled “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher” who brings the volatile Quell into his life, and into his pseudoscientific cult, seemingly to see if his Dianetic-like theories can work on a man as maladjusted as this.
Both Phoenix and Hoffman deliver screen-filling, vein-popping, Oscar-baiting performances, all testosterone and straining pores, and Amy Adams puts in a decent turn as Hoffman’s cold, determined wife. Phoenix in particular is incredible, all twitch and fury. Visually and aurally it’s all pretty stunning, with Johnny Greenwood’s score making the whole piece feel like part of the same film family as There Will Be Blood.
But in the end, no matter how technically accomplished the film is or how much scenery gets chewed, it’s not clear to me why I should care. Everyone in the film is either a fully-signed up cultist or member of the Dodd family, or is Quell, a bug-eyed alcoholic simpleton with no redeeming character traits and given over to violent outbursts. There’s nobody to care about. Will Quell end up absorbed into the cult or will he escape to continue his life as a wandering, abusive drunk? Which outcome are we meant to be rooting for, and why should we care either way? He’s a spectacular arsehole.
Even the cult itself seems relatively benign, as cults go. There’s an arrest over alleged embezzlement that’s never followed up, and a suggestion that a hypothetical cancer sufferer might be taken in by Hoffman’s theories and be worse off as a result, but beyond that people seem free to come and go and even to question amongst themselves the validity of Hoffman’s words. There’s no threat here, no sense that any of this really matters or that it will develop into something worse.
It had been expected by many that The Master was to be a thinly-veiled attack on Scientology, but while the parallels are clear — Dodd is L. Ron Hubbard and the ‘processing’ he puts his followers through is the Scientologist ‘auditing’ — there’s no serious attack, and the ideas presented go largely unchallenged. Even those around Dodd that express doubts remain by his side anyway.
So I’m not sure what the film is trying to do or say. As an attack on cults, The Master has no teeth. As a narrative it didn’t engage me, and at two and a half hours long even the intense performances started to bore. I didn’t care about any of it, and I’m not even sure I was supposed to.