WELL, AT LEAST IT’S PRETENTIOUS, and that’s a start in an age when too many films are hardly trying. In a devastating bargain with us and themselves, most modern American movies are content with seeking to make a little money and re-telling some same old story. Nobody could accuse The Master of being confined in those dead ends. Yet its distributors, the Weinstein brothers, know that nothing yet has altered the American dream of making a lot of money while being sensational and digging into our nervous system and the last chance that we have for existence and hope. Look at Apple. There was no film I was looking forward to more than Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and now it is here. It’s a mess; it’s pretentious; it is thundery with dismay. It may be acclaimed in the anxiety that grips many film critics. But the best and most interesting thing to be said about it is that a young master has gone off the deep end and found no water in the pool. So it makes you laugh out loud at its being such a disaster, and it may be a turning point in Anderson’s career, the experiment that teaches him to swim in a different way.
The Master never becomes a story, or a satisfactory shape, and that’s why the trailers for it are more beguiling than the film itself. I can see how the maybe twenty trailers for The Master, three minutes each, might have made a profound suggestion about the plans for a film, as promising and seductive as the map for a Treasure Island. It’s worth noting that there is stuff in the trailers that is not in the final film, and this is just one clue in the realization: this film was never finalized—but in our day, with our yearning for interactivity, why not present a film in bits and pieces and let us do the arranging? It is time that we worked harder and believed in our own attempt.
Why is Anderson’s film called The Master, when it seems to depend on a confrontation between two very different men in which power or mastery is never settled? Some have suggested that the word covers both men: the Master of a strange, vague movement, and the Master of his ship? But that won’t do. Freddie Quell is an ordinary sailor who has come out of World War II odd, damaged, and even dangerous. But perhaps he was all those things before the war. You can assume, if you wish, that the war has traumatized Freddie, but nothing is shown or offered, and the fact that he is Joaquin Phoenix looms over everything.
Phoenix is a unique actor who seems scourged by his reluctance to act and his urge to find some twisted, incoherent being instead. He has done fine work; he has announced his retirement; and he lent himself to an unforgivable piece of posing, a mockumentary called I’m Still Here. In short, he is our new Brando, but he has resolved to have nothing to do with the calm or the beauty that shone out of Brando. He seems to have a headache or an emotional distress that is aging or warping him. He is determined to be hard to like and unwholesome. He is thirty-seven as the film opens, yet Freddie looks older or more depleted.
In an America of the late 1940s and early 1950s, looking airy and satisfied in the gorgeous sixty-five-millimeter cinematography, he drifts, drinks, womanizes, and gets into trouble. Then one day, he is at a harbor and passing a fine boat on which a party is being held. He slips aboard and meets the Master of the revels, Longworth Dodd. I don’t think Philip Seymour Hoffman (playing Dodd) has ever looked better—and Hoffman has his own dark pride in being shabby and hangdog. But here he is sleek, groomed, assured, and buffed up by the unquestioning adoration of a wife and the trust of his followers. For Dodd has a movement.
It is a very modest domestic cult, defiant of every guess that The Master was going to be an assault on Scientology, rather in the way that Anderson used Tom Cruise in Magnolia to expose the bluster and dishonesty in a male-supremacy cult. I don’t think Scientology will bother to be upset by this film. Dodd has small meetings and no great design on the world of crowds and power. It is hard, I fear, for Hoffman to seem energetic and ambitious enough for that. He is another fine actor, but his heaviness already sighs with sadness. So it’s fitting and persuasive that Freddie inveigles himself with the Master by turning him onto home-brew liquor, seemingly as potent as gasoline. So the two men are drawn to each other and ... well, that’s about it.
Hence the dismay. We gather that Dodd is a fraud as well as someone who may utter platitudes that move strangers. He has a son (Jesse Plemons, so good we want more of him) who tells Freddie that his father is just making his stuff up as he goes along, and there is the potential for outrage and betrayal in the meeting of the two central characters. Yet all the script has them do is bicker and spar and wrestle like kids. There is a promising set-up when they go to a flat desert with a motorcycle. There are shots of them riding full pelt that are ravishing and promising in sixty-five-millimeter. Surely some duel or test is building in this ochre Biblical setting? But then the scene fades out—nothing has come of it. There is an ending that, if you wish, you can call enigmatic or mysterious, or just a helpless way of drawing the attenuated proceedings to a close.
I DARESAY THERE WILL BE far more enthusiastic reviews written of The Master. I hope so, for controversy may be its likeliest way of holding an audience. More than that, I have been an enthusiast of Paul Thomas Anderson, from Hard Eight to There Will Be Blood. I wanted this film to be great; I did not see how it could fail to be a large challenge. Yet now I have the gravest doubts as to whether it is really about anything, in the sense that Magnolia was about the unceasing efforts of a great circle of people to live honestly and dishonestly at the same time. A stronger comparison may be made with There Will Be Blood. That is a parable, set in a semidesert America, with implacable opponents, the ruthless capitalist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the meek, hesitant Paul Sunday, and his preacher brother, Eli (both played by Paul Dano). The success of There Will Be Blood had less to do with Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! than with the unity of physical isolation and moral confrontation, and the Satanic force of Day-Lewis’s Plainview.
The Master seems to inhabit a more realistic America: it is set in city suburbs for the most part. But the America of, say, 1950 is unfelt and unnoticed, and does nothing to support the uncertain attempt at fable. There is no kind of cause or message in Lancaster Dodd’s armory, and no tension in a people or a country that might be swayed by it. Yet 1950 was the moment of the Korean War, nuclear weapons, and the feverish drive against Communists. It was a time when the alleged purity and certain prosperity of America were beginning to acquire an ugly sheen—and that history is begun in There Will Be Blood, in which the necessity of oil excuses all depths of behavior or vestige of law. The possibility that Dodd is both possessed by a righteous vision and gripped by criminal fraud is never dealt with, and so Freddie’s reluctant allegiance does not become fuel for murderous anger. Surely when a movie is called The Master, the chance of revolution or extremism comes into play. And that dark vision of an outraged America ready to overthrow its government is more present now than at any time since 1919. This didn’t have to be a film about Scientology; it should have been a diagnosis of America ruined by kinds of belief that have gone mad and ecstatic with fear and loathing. Dodd needs to be touched by Ayn Rand’s fury.
Perhaps because of the thematic torpor and lack of action, a kind of latent homosexual subtext arises between the two men. Of course it’s not developed, and I suspect it was not even intended. It seems to be the overflow of two exceptional actors, charged with the occasion, but hardly knowing what to do with their under-written characters. Anderson has not been shy about sex before: Boogie Nights is a very erotic satire on pornographic film-making, and Magnolia is filled with attempts at romance. The latter has a gallery of great performances that includes Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, Melinda Dillon, Felicity Huffman, and April Grace.
By contrast, the female roles in The Master are seriously under-developed. Amy Adams is Dodd’s wife, who usually sits in placid and pregnant grandeur but is allowed no life and no chance to be aware of Dodd’s faults. Ambyr Childers is Dodd’s daughter. She flirts briefly with Freddie and then condemns him, but I’d guess it’s a role that suffered in the editing. Laura Dern is one of Dodd’s group, and she never lets a film down, but again one wonders why she is there. As for the great Swedish actress, Lena Endre, she has just one scene. Amy Ferguson is the most arresting woman in the film, playing a model in a department store where Freddie gets a job as a photographer before falling in with Dodd. There are directors who would have seen those early scenes and enlarged the role (it has no name in the cast list), and there are viewers who would have welcomed the shift.
THIS FILM HAS BEEN talked about in advance more than most. In part that’s because of There Will Be Blood, which was nominated for eight Oscars and won for Day-Lewis’s acting and Robert Elswit’s photography. It is highly esteemed by some critics. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times recently chose it as one of the ten best pictures of all time. But the film only grossed $40 million on a budget of $25 million, which is not really enough. When Anderson offered his script to Universal and the Weinsteins, it was budgeted at $35 million. They turned it down. But rescue came in the form of Megan Ellison, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of Larry Ellison of Oracle (another kind of Master). Her company, Annapurna, seems to have put up the entire budget. At which point the Weinsteins agreed to release the film.
It was invited to the Venice Film Festival and Toronto, and I understand that the New York Festival would have liked to play it. But the Weinsteins chose to advance its opening date to September 14. That is hard to explain. A festival occasion would surely have helped a film that seems to me to have very little for audiences.
So I am of the opinion that Paul Thomas Anderson has made a dud. There’s no harm in that after five remarkable films in a row. And I may prove to be wrong if enough people say so. Still, I am disappointed just because of the potential here. Anderson spent years on the script and always wanted Hoffman as Dodd. As he received sections of the script, Hoffman urged that Freddie’s part be built up. Originally Jeremy Renner was going to play Freddie, but he had scheduling difficulties—Bourne, no doubt—and it was then that Phoenix came on board. I wonder what would have happened if Phoenix had been the Master and Hoffman the drifter. Phoenix has the look of a zealot and a man who might be tortured by his vision, while Hoffman could quite easily be the drunk and the downbeat.
Would that have made enough difference? Who can say, but it might have been so dynamic a change late in the day that it compelled Anderson to give the film more urgency and let it be less picturesque. I love the allegiance to film and sixty-five-millimeter, and I can only praise the photography here (by Mihai Malamaire, Jr.), but it is another asset that drifts by like a cloud on a hot day. Anderson might have been bolder shooting in black-and-white thirty-five-millimeter, still a vibrant mode in 1950, and letting the noir aspects run free. There should be more sex and violence, and less time for reflection. The film should hold our America in the balance. It needed the decisiveness of a Daniel Plainview.
David Thomson is the author of The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the actress playing a department store model as Fiona Dourif. The actress in that role is Amy Ferguson. We regret the error.