There's something startlingly noncommittal about many of the initial reviews of The Master that leaked out following the impromptu screenings writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson organized in 70mm-equipped houses across the country, and later in response to the film's official bow at the Venice Film Festival. This is perhaps the natural, if not the most productive, response to a film that, like the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix, resists conforming to any preconceived template of what it could or should be.
In admitting that "Master" Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, offering a new twist on the roiling vulnerability Anderson has always highlighted in their collaborations) — the figurehead of a growing faith movement in 1950s America — was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson set up expectations of an exposé of the origins of Scientology that would satisfy everyone who clucked approvingly when Katie swept Suri from the snatches of the Sea Org. Instead, Anderson has delivered a free-form work of expressionism, more room-size painting than biopic, star vehicle, or even traditional character study, mirroring Hubbard's story when convenient while strenuously avoiding direct representation. As with Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Anderson takes what he needs from history to recast his own story, yet he has never made a film so elusive.
Structurally similar to the Oscar-winning Blood, The Master begins with the origin story of how an iconoclast joins a community that he'll then struggle to live within, leading to a final confrontation with a man with whom he shares an adversarial and primal connection. Here, that iconoclast is Freddie (Phoenix), a Navy man we meet in the South Pacific in the waning days of World War II. He's a pervert and a drunk who's equally likely to kick a party into high gear by whipping up homemade booze or bring it to a dead halt by acting like a fucking weirdo. Did the war do it to him, or did collective catastrophe give him a space in which to almost blend in? Forced to assimilate back into the real world, he takes a gig as a department store photographer. He's probably in it for access to chemicals he can treat as liquor, but the job also gives this longtime itinerant a measure of control — in a circus replica of postwar domestic-consumer fantasy. He can be in the system and at the same time gnaw away at it. That's a mode of being that he'll repeat. Always on the run from some scrape, Freddie eventually ends up passing out drunk on a yacht carrying Dodd and his family.
"Above all, I am a man," Dodd tells Freddie. "Just like you." Dodd teaches Freddie not to apologize for who he is — namely, "a scoundrel" — but also makes it plain that to accept the literal free ride the Dodds can offer, Freddie will have to submit to the Master's conversion therapy. His teachings are mostly designed to help followers control their emotions by accessing their past experiences, either in their current lives or previous ones. In Freddie, he has himself a stowaway who has chewed through every leash ever clipped to his collar, who attempts to seduce adult women by passing notes ("Do you want to fuck?"), who has never encountered a household or industrial chemical that he hasn't tried to drink. In their first "processing" session, Dodd repeatedly asks Freddie a question: "Do your past failures bother you?" If anything, from what we've seen, they don't bother him enough, or, at least, he seems incapable of learning from them: His safe word is "away"; his default mode is "at sea." Can he change? Does he want to?
The Master's "processing" is surely modeled to some extent on Scientology's "auditing," but the exercises Dodd leads his followers through are not unlike what might have gone on in the era's acting classes. Processing puts Freddie inside scenes and feelings from his past — essentially the state method acting tries to get to through affective memory. If what The Master is "about" can even be boiled down, then it might be about acting: To ask if a person's nature is inherently fixed or if it can be engineered from the outside is to essentially ask if one person can teach another how to act.
It follows that Phoenix's performance is the most easily embraceable element of the movie, not least because, in its all-in commitment and sometimes baffling physicality, it seems to reflect Phoenix's own past-life experience of all-in performance as self-destruction. (Remember, this guy hasn't made a movie since I'm Still Here). In the film's thrilling first half, devoted to Freddie's wanderings and first immersion in "the cause," Phoenix tips toward comedy. Shoulders hunched, arms swinging, his face snarled to one side in the very illustration of a mug, his body language is live-action Popeye, without muscles. In the second half, as Dodd draws out Freddie's tendency toward violence as defense, anything cartoonish hardens. The relationship and performances driving it hit their peak in an incredible single shot of the two in side-by-side jail cells: One man is a frenzy of rage; the other remains fixed and contained, yet both master and servant are ultimately reduced to screaming children.
The film rises and falls on the magnetic pull between these two, the inexplicable loyalty they feel to each other. We're never fully allowed inside their bond, in part because Anderson refuses to give viewers a fixed point of emotional identification. A scene in which Dodd sings and dances with a roomful of naked women seems to be a fantasy, but whose? Are these the idle imaginings of antisocial pervert Freddie? Is Dodd practicing the old stage trick of picturing his audience without armor? Or is the following scene, wherein Dodd's wife (Amy Adams) busts his balls while simultaneously offering them mechanical relief, a signal that the apparent male fantasy was in fact a woman-behind-the-man's paranoid delusion?
Is this all vague enough for you? The film's ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson's use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. The viewing experience, akin to grasping for something just out of reach in a dream or trying to read subtitles through an old pair of glasses, is neatly mirrored by one of Dodd's exercises, in which Freddie is forced to pace a room and describe the same wall and the same window with new language each time. It's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort food pleasure, but that's not Anderson's problem. You've just seen too many movies about incommunicative fuck-ups who manage to break down their defenses at some convenient third-act moment, assuring that order will be restored. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible — or even advisable.