Paul Thomas Anderson’s grandly ambitious films are never easy to get a handle on. His contemporary explorations of LA subcultures—Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999)—and his historical epic There Will Be Blood (2007) are big, blunt, and violent, both emotionally and physically. On one level, these films attempt to capture the essence of America, but their emphasis is more on fraught father-son relationships and over-the-top men who desire to dominate the world around them. There Will Be Blood (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil), for instance, depicts an oil baron named Daniel Plainview (played by a riveting and domineering Daniel Day Lewis) who is a con man, an idealist, and a murderous monster rolled into one. But the film is more focused on imagery—graphically capturing the oil-well digging process, and Plainview incessantly chopping away with a pickaxe mining for silver—than in a pointed critique of the origins and machinations of the oil industry.
Anderson is no social realist. He is less interested in structures and institutions than in the psychological and archetypal nature of his bigger-than-life, sometimes mad characters. And so his latest film, The Master, isn’t the docudrama about a Scientology-like cult that some people expected it to be. Yes, there is a cult—the “Cause”—that plays a central role in the film, and there are clearly many parallels between its Master, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and the founder of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Both are paranoid about the American Medical Association, and their respective movements emerge out of the painful aftermath of the Second World War. Most important, Dodd’s Cause centers on an interrogation technique called “processing” that resembles Scientology’s “auditing,” a method that uses sharp questions and other psychological techniques to uncover traumatic memories and thereby dilute their impact. Both Dodd and Hubbard’s processes rely on hypnosis, and both involve members confronting each other by staring at the other without blinking, and engaging in mockery to break down defenses.
Though Anderson vividly depicts Dodd’s process, we learn little about the Cause’s membership, except that they are well-heeled, or about the structure of the organization. Instead, he focuses on the complex, ever-shifting relationship of Freddie Quell, a Second World War South Pacific navy vet played by a possessed Joaquin Phoenix, and Dodd.
The two central performances are stunning. Hoffman, as always, is able to shift the tone and behavior of his character with power and subtlety. His Dodd is grandiloquent—calling himself a “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher”—but remains mesmerizing, even seductive. He presents a likable jaunty persona most of the time, in love with laughter and popular songs, but crudely snaps at his disciples when his authority is questioned. Phoenix’s Quell, meanwhile, has a barbed, wild intensity that leaps off the screen. He is all grimaces, tics, twisted mouth, inarticulate mumbling, and hunched back. Quell is a gaunt, alienated drifter who will drink anything he can get his hands on. He is obsessed with sex and filled with violent, volcanic rage. Quell’s character seems shaped by both his traumatic war experiences and his traumatic family history (he’s the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who is in a mental institution), but whatever its roots, the result is impulsive behavior devoid of self-awareness and self-control. Quell can’t abide authority, and he is always running from something.
Quell’s chance meeting with Dodd happens while he is in flight from migrant workers who feel that he has poisoned a man with his homemade alcoholic concoctions. Quell stows away on Dodd’s luxuriant yacht, and when he is discovered, Dodd instantly develops a powerful affection for him that runs through the film. Dodd views Freddie as a primal figure—a “guinea pig and protégé” who can be socialized and converted into a cult adherent through processing. Dodd’s questions to Quell sound like a Freudian analyst’s, but his process goes all the way back to birth, and then on to past selves in history. Dodd manages to turn Quell into his assistant, but he is an erratic one, torn between desires for freedom and structure. Freddie moves back and forth between embracing the movement and moving away, either because of unrestrained rages (repeated once too often) or abrupt disappearances, like when he travels back to his hometown in a fruitless search for his childhood sweetheart. Each time he aggressively acts out, he is treated as a “naughty” boy by Dodd and forgiven. And though Freddie has trouble trusting authority, he seems to want the home and family he never had. Dodd at least gives the illusion of genuine mastery.
Dodd is generally at ease with himself and his project, but in his moments of anxiety about the Cause’s enemies his protective and steely zealot of a wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in a one-note but commanding performance), is there to build up his self-confidence. Peggy repeatedly expresses disdain for Freddie, who she feels is a lost soul and drunkard who will never learn self-discipline and can only hurt the Cause. Still, she is unable to successfully confront Dodd about his commitment Quell. She may be tough, and Dodd may rely on her unwavering dedication to the cult, but she knows the movement is totally dependent on Dodd’s direction and vision.
Freddie eventually leaves the Cause, but the bond between him and Dodd is unbreakable. In a final scene, he picks up a woman in a pub, and in bed begins the kind of interrogation that Dodd first initiated with him. The scene, and the ones preceding it, provide no artificial closure—Anderson does not accommodate the narrative and emotional needs of the general public. Quell is neither redeemed nor socialized, and Dodd’s religious movement ambles on in spite of his self-doubt, not to mention legal and financial problems. In fact, at the film’s conclusion, Dodd is in England overseeing a thriving Cause.
The Master is psychologically rich and stunning to look at—and yet, as in Anderson’s other films, there seems to be a gap between his vision and his ability to control or fully shape it. Is the film dealing in American archetypes, like the charismatic con man (think Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry) and the rootless, instinctual sociopath (Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity, and countless other film and fictional anti-heroes), or trying to show the divide in some more general American character between the need for individual freedom and the desire for community and authority? Anderson’s work is so suggestive that it’s open to infinite interpretations, but this often appears less like calculated ambiguity than as a lack of intellectual control of the material. Perhaps The Master really is just what it looks like on the surface—an uncompromising take on fathers and sons.
Leonard Quart is the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945 and a contributing editor at Cineaste.