Attending one of the many sold-out shows of The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, during its opening weekend in New York, I had the misfortune of sitting next to a young man who not only had a laugh like a French poodle's hiccup, but erupted in bewildering mirth at almost everything that happened in the film. When the movie's central character, maladjusted war veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), drank photographic chemicals in his undying effort to remain intoxicated, the kid cracked up. When Freddie debased himself sexually, the barking beside me suggested a kennel. When Freddie smashed his jail-cell toilet—after his arrest with the Svengali-like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—the young fellow became virtually apoplectic.
Though my seat mate was a particularly volatile example of the nervous giggler, his laughter resembled what you often hear at Hollywood comedies that rely on gross-out jokes and cringe-inducing situations, intended to make the viewer uncomfortable and apt to laugh, simply for lack of knowing what else to do. "The Master" is not a comedy, of course. It is Anderson's masterwork of mood, character and religious criticism, allegedly inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. It is less a coherent narrative than a tone poem. Yet the film does make the viewer supremely uncomfortable. Freddie, walking around with his id hanging out, is too much the vulnerable, damaged and malleable disciple-to-be not to strike a chord of kinship with an audience that will try to dismiss him, and find it impossible.
While Anderson himself has said "The Master" was inspired by Hubbard, the film companies involved have denied it, probably to avoid incurring the wrath of what has been called the most litigious religious organization since the Spanish Inquisition. In this case, though, the Church of Scientology is something of a scapegoat. Anderson's films—notably, the porn-industry epic "Boogie Nights"—have often dealt with our collective, desperate need for family, for belonging, for an embrace by the proverbial "something greater than ourselves." My pal at the screening might have wanted to deny it, but Freddie is all of us, despite or because of his self-doubt, incendiary anger, profound litany of regret and burning need to believe in what Lancaster Dodd is selling.
Dodd's bill of goods is a hodgepodge of Eastern mysticism, science fiction, eternal life, ego-stroking and a history of consciousness that stretches back "trillions" of years. It is 1950, and World War II—like all wars, despite the retrospective spinning and historical cosmetology—has left its share of human wreckage. This includes Freddie, who has spent time among a company of shell-shocked vets who are assured that, had "normal" citizens been subjected to what they've seen, those people would be shell-shocked, too. Except they're not. And the reintroduction of someone like Freddie into workaday society is going to be fraught with emotional, spiritual and—sometimes—physical peril.
We know, and so does Dodd, that Freddie is an ideal candidate for apostleship, blind allegiance, perhaps even faith, although Freddie's most poignant line comes in that aforementioned jail cell, after Dodd has been arrested for defrauding a charity, and Freddie has been arrested for attacking the police. "Just tell me something that's true!!" he shrieks, wanting so much to believe and given so little reason to. One of the major accomplishments of "The Master"—in addition to Mihai Milaimare Jr.'s spectacular 70mm cinematography, and the angular music by Jonny Greenwood, of the band Radiohead—is that we want to believe Dodd, too, even after his own son (Jesse Plemons) has said, "He's making it up as he goes along."
"The Master" should be seen as a portrait, not necessarily of Scientology but of fundamentalism. Like the hope-starved adherents of radical Islam or the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Freddie has nowhere else to go until he happens upon Dodd, whom is first glimpsed from afar, aboard a pleasure boat, water being a key medium for Anderson's message. Freddie, a Navy veteran and able-bodied seaman, is taken on as a ship's mate and as Dodd's right-hand man and, eventually, muscle. To those who dare question Dodd's theology, Freddie brings violent retribution, even if it's a violence he would have vented elsewhere (as he has throughout the storyline). Dodd establishes a kinship with Freddie by drinking and appreciating the vile moonshine Freddie manages to create with whatever happens to be at hand, much the way Dodd has concocted his religion. Both are intoxicating. Both are dangerous. Both are apt to warp the mind.
Amid all of its splendid acting (Amy Adams, starkly out of character, plays Dodd's Macbeth-ish wife, Peggy), what "The Master" lacks is a story that hangs together the way audiences may expect it to. The film does not head toward or reach any definite narrative objective. It is more a collection of episodes that reveal character, personality and dysfunction, although the way that is done is (no pun intended) masterful.
Freddie is fascinating, an awkwardly walking metaphor—his pants are too high, and so are his shoulders; with his arms frequently akimbo, he gives off the unmistakable impression of a man constantly fighting his own physical gracelessness and losing. He's equally at war with his soul, tortured by the war and by the memory of Doris (Madisen Beaty), the love of his life who was too young at 16 to go away with him and who haunts him like original sin.
Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" and lost, coincidentally, to his "Master" co-star, Hoffman ("Capote"). Both are among our greatest screen actors. The pleasures of watching them should override any need people have to simply to be told a story, even if that's exactly what the "The Master" is all about.