Deep in the closing credits to Paul Thomas Anderson’s austere and challenging new film “The Master,” you’ll find some legalistic language of the sort attached to any Hollywood movie, with a peculiar twist of phrase added: “The story and its characters are fictional and the events and actions portrayed do not reflect the actions of any movement or any living or deceased individuals.” (Emphasis added.) My goodness, what are Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers worried about? Is there some extant organization so thin-skinned and litigious that it could see itself in this fictional portrait of a charismatic 1950s flim-flam man selling a self-help method that combines knockoff Freudian psychology, mysticism and science fiction?
I jest, sort of. But the disclaimer actually holds up, in a funny way. “The Master” is more like an abstract, ominous tone poem about male loneliness in postwar America than a docudrama about Scientology founder and best-selling author L. Ron Hubbard, even if he’s clearly the inspiration for Lancaster Dodd, the character played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether or not that’s a good thing I cannot yet be sure; “The Master” is very much the kind of intentionally difficult film that will inspire repeat viewings and heated arguments, at least among a small cadre of adherents. (In this respect and others, Anderson may feel some kinship with Hubbard.) But I can tell you that if you’re expecting a sweeping social portrait of a Hubbard-esque prophet and/or a charlatan and his life and times – something like what French director Olivier Assayas delivered for the 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal – you won’t find that here.
From “Boogie Nights” to “Magnolia” to “Punch-Drunk Love” to “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson has seemed torn between competing impulses. On one hand, he seems to be one of the last living carriers of a sputtering flame, the vision of American cinema on a grand social-satirical scale handed down from Orson Welles and Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. On the other hand, Anderson’s work has grown increasingly pictorial, poetic and abstruse, in the mode of Terrence Malick or 1970s European art cinema. I’m not saying those two things are incompatible in aesthetic terms, necessarily, but they’re pretty damn likely to frustrate an audience accustomed to the reassuring beats of conventional drama. “The Master” is often spectacular and never less than handsome, and it has numerous moments of disturbing and almost electrical power. I can’t say, after one viewing, that I found it moving or satisfying as a whole, but I’m also not sure it’s supposed to be. This is an almost apocalyptic tale of thwarted emotion -- love cut short -- set in a pitiless land of delusions.
There are certainly passages of the sort of “Citizen Kane” ambition you expect from Anderson here, not least in the memorable leading performances by Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix and the magnificent wide-screen cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr., a new collaborator for Anderson. (See it in 70mm if you possibly can.) But if the canvas in “The Master” is large, the film’s focus is relentlessly intimate, perhaps even reductive. If you read the Wikipedia page on Hubbard, there’s enough drama, rumor and controversy there for a dozen movies, from his disputed career as an explorer and Navy officer to his attempt to have his wife certified as insane in Havana to the period in the '70s when he wandered the Mediterranean in a fleet of ships called the “Sea Org,” attempting to ingratiate himself with authoritarian regimes in Greece and Morocco.
Bits and pieces of that historical background work their way into Anderson’s film, but it’s deliberately free of conventional plot and takes no notice of the political and social world. Instead, “The Master” tries to load all the allure, pathos, danger and tragedy of Dodd’s movement, here called simply “The Cause,” into his ambiguous relationship with one on-again, off-again acolyte, a drunken and damaged seaman named Freddie, played by Phoenix. You’d have to call Freddie the film’s protagonist, but that’s really an impossible word for a guy who’s so totally inarticulate and so lacking in self-awareness, a guy whose face seems frozen in a permanent stroke-victim sneer and who speaks in an inaudible mumble. Phoenix has always been an all-in actor, and this is one of those Brando-scaled performances that demands your attention, for good or ill. I’m torn between thinking he goes way over the top and thinking that he makes you feel the pain that Freddie, a battle-scarred war veteran battling a mental illness he cannot begin to understand, must endure every second of every day.
At any rate, at one point when the pompous, debonair Dodd accuses Freddie of being like a fearful animal that eats its own excrement, both we and Freddie are hit as with a bucket of cold sea water: That is exactly what he’s like, and exactly what we’re all like in our worst moments of bitter self-indulgence. As for Hoffman, if there’s an Oscar nomination in this movie, it should surely be his. He nails the grandiosity, the small-minded vanity, the autodidact pseudo-learning and the salesman’s charm of this absolutely-not-like-L.-Ron-Hubbard character beautifully. When asked by Freddie, during their first meeting, what he does, Dodd replies with an air of satisfied mystery, “I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher.” His massive second tome, “The Split Saber,” is subtitled “as a gift to Homo Sapiens.” (Hubbard too claimed to be a doctor and a nuclear physicist at various times, although his only known degree came from an unaccredited mail order “university.”)
But if the portrayal of Dodd is somewhat ungenerous, it’s not altogether unfair or one-sided. As the New Republic wrote on the original publication of “Dianetics” in 1950, Hubbard’s approach was a "bold and immodest mixture of complete nonsense and perfectly reasonable common sense.” You don’t have to swallow the ludicrous trillion-year back-story of Scientology (which is pretty closely echoed by Dodd in the film) to accept the possibility that Hubbard’s brand of pop psychology has helped some people to lead happier lives. On its most basic level, “The Master” is a primordial myth about a man seeking his lost father (Freddie’s dad, we learn, died long ago) and a father seeking his lost son (Dodd’s own son has rejected him, as indeed did Hubbard’s eldest). If such alliances between life-hardened guys rarely work out in the long haul, they can certainly provide succor for a while.
So much of “The Master” is about the faces of Phoenix and Hoffman -- their tense, coded conversations, which seem to coast above bottomless pits of grief -- and the film’s extraordinary technical merits – not just Malaimare’s strange, empty frames but Jonny Greenwood’s spare, modernist-classical score – that it’s easy to overlook the rest of the cast entirely. Amy Adams is sensational in an undercooked role as Dodd’s ferocious wife Peggy, who seems to be a ladylike supporting figure but is really the force behind the throne. (Almost alone among the details in “The Master,” this seems to have no cognate in Hubbard’s biography.)
There are hints of an erotic relationship between Freddie and Dodd’s daughter (Ambyr Childers) and a not-too-veiled suggestion that Dodd’s paternal yearnings for Freddie are complicated by other desires. But at the risk of issuing a spoiler of sorts, beyond a bewildering point-of-view sequence when Freddie imagines that all the women at a Philadelphia cocktail party are naked, this is a film suffused with sexual desire that has no sex in it. If you look at “The Master” through the lens of Paul Thomas Anderson’s body of work, this is a prelude to the world of “Boogie Nights,” a disordered America where nobody was getting any that led straight to the disordered America where everybody was getting too much.