"The Master" is both wonderful and not. It is long, at times tedious, but also represents filmmaking at its finest. The photography is rapturous, the lighting transcends, shot by cinematographer Mihal Malaimare. The acting, collectively, is a tour de force.
The film is about a cult — how else to say it? — that mirrors, as director Paul Thomas Anderson has said, the early days of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The catalyst for the organization, known as The Cause, is a charismatic carny, one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man of shallow, dissembling convictions, a performer who can light up a room and inspire seeming leveled-headed people to ply him with devotion and money as he spins his tales of past lives and delusional corruption.
He lives off of the generosity of others and gives in return a promise of "… what? It's never completely clear as he shape-shifts with each session, what he calls "processing." It's pure hokum, but it is biblical in its absorption by the initiated and the neophytes and a comment on how rational people are fully prepared to anchor themselves to a smooth-talking, manipulative, megalomaniac who proclaims to have found the truth. His version, of course.
Into Dodd's world comes Freddie Quell (Jaoquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter — a gaunt, pained man, his body and soul as twisted and gnarled as a desiccated tree.
He is mustered out of the Navy at the end of World War II, ravaged, sexually obsessed, completely unhinged and unmoored.
He stows away on a private cruise boat in San Francisco, captained by Dodd, and is given shelter, the purpose being to heal his spirit while he, in return, concocts a white lightning brew that makes Dodd's cheeks glow with panting delight.
And so begins a relationship that is dysfunctional, decayed, flagrantly symbiotic, filled with an embedded sexual tension, elaborated upon in a series of vignettes, sometimes surreal, oft times involving Dodd's most recent wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and his older children.
All of the characters are insufferable, and there is not one moment that points to redemption for any of them.
There is a motif in the film that is repeated, one that perhaps portends of life lived by the members of the cult, a metaphor for the relationships in "The Master" as well as the experience of watching the film: a ship is steaming ahead, and at its stern is the roiling, aqua blue water, churning, foaming, potentially placid, ever seductive, defining disquiet.
"The Master" is all that and more. It also fails to create a clear narrative arc and feels perpetually at loose ends. Nothing is resolved. What once was lost is never found, the story held together by the will of the individual performances, so nicely showcased, but strangely, and unexpectedly, empty.
Nevertheless, look for this film as awards season approaches. It is that kind of movie. And it's not hard to imagine seeing Hoffman and Adams and Phoenix on the stage feeling triumphant if not somewhat surprised.