Billed as PT Anderson’s ‘scientology film’, The Master is really an enigmatic melodrama about everything and nothing. This is its strength, in a way, but also ultimately its weakness. Continuing in There Will Be Blood’s vein of hammed-up thespian intensity, like that film The Master focuses on two larger-than-life characters. Freddie Quell is an emotionally damaged WW2 veteran and wildly self-destructive drinker, whose benders involve alchemising lethal moonshine from ingredients like cough syrup and (literal) rocket fuel. However, most of the pre-launch hype has surrounded his counterpart, the bombastic, pseudo-messianic shyster Lancaster Dodd, inspired by South Park’s L. Ron Hubbard.
Quell falls under the influence of Dodd by chance, having wandered onto a cruise ship rented by Dodd’s cult, during the course of one of his binges. The two strike up a strange mutual dependency, with Quell falling under the spell of Dodd’s charismatic oratory and cod-spiritual guidance. Quell’s priest, psychoanalyst and surrogate patriarch in equal parts, Dodd is also in some ways a kindred spirit and mirror image. In a strangely triangulated pact, he feeds off Quell’s childlike reverence, growing ever more dependent on Quell’s dependency.
Dodd also, it is hinted, develops something approximating Quell’s physical dependency for the potent cocktails he concocts. Just as There Will Be Blood concerns the intoxicating effects of the will to power, religious fervor and primal animosity, The Master concerns the parallels between those of belief, personality, and alcohol. Both films make more sense if you bear in mind that, in one way or another, the characters spend most of their time completely wasted.
As is immediately discernible, then, this is not Anderson’s personal critique of the tenets of scientology, an exercise that would be unlikely to merit two and a half hours of any thinking person’s attention. The cod-philosophy that Dodd spouts is clearly spurious, but its details are arbitrary and only briefly gestured at. Anderson is clearly interested in belief and where it comes from, but he is primarily concerned with the human compulsion, need, manipulation, desire and force of personality that creates it, not the details of that which is believed. Even when a rare, educated listener challenges Dodd as he spouts his ludicrous metaphysics, the focus is on the human content of his violent and paranoid reaction, rather than the truth-content of the objection.
If this is a character film rather than an issues film per se, that is not to say that Anderson does not attempt to locate his characters within the specifics of their time and place. Indeed, the film is full of gestures towards wider themes. Quell is a lost boy who has no idea how to take control over his life having been cast back into civilian society after the war (though the latter is never shown). His search for a surrogate family is underwritten by his own rootlessness, his father having drunk himself to death and his mother having died in an insane asylum. He makes a living for a time by taking family photographs in a shopping centre – the ultimate symbol of America’s mid-century crisis of spirituality – creating endless reconstructions of the idealized nuclear unit from whose authentic reality he is alienated.
Yet if Anderson intends Quell to embody some sort of wider truth about the postwar condition, this intention is at odds with Joachim Phoenix’s caricature posturing – which is not to say that it isn’t an extraordinary performance. In many ways it is a remarkable display of method-acting rigour. Indeed, Pheonix’s sneering, maniacal intensity recalls that of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck.
Yet the uses to which Herzog and Anderson put this sort of performance are very different. Herzog’s Kinski films are defined by Wagnerian excess – explicitly, in the case of Fitzcarraldo. The histrionics of Kinski’s performances are matched by Herzog’s overreaching metaphysical bombast. Their elemental intensity recalls classical tragedy, serving to dissolve the individuality of Kinski’s personas and elevate them to the realm of archetype. Herzog’s purpose is not to create a sense of empathy or three-dimensional believability in the case of Aguirre, any more than Homer’s is in the case of Achilles.
Anderson is interested in filming similarly spectacular and histrionic performances from both his leading men, but he also seems to want to domesticate them in a way in which Herzog has no interest. This creates a conflict. Anderson seeks to examine Quell and Dodd and tap into their interiority, understanding the human motivations that underpin their relationship. But their performances are so external and aestheticized in their studied thespianism that they remain remote. Quell and Dodd are neither believable enough to be fully human, nor representative enough to be compellingly symbolic. They neither fully achieve nor transcend the particular. The result is caricature.
There is much to admire in The Master, but it is not a film that ever achieves more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the main impression I left with is that Anderson is an interesting and talented director who has fallen into the trap of believing his own hype. Profundity, much like humour, is something that can’t really be forced. The earlier films that launched Anderson’s reputation, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are triumphs of style, offbeat humour and imagination, but they are not works of any particular artistic or philosophical depth. They are films that are not about anything per se; they merely are – in a way that is unforced, singular and vital. The Master, in contrast, is a work that in its desperate striving to say something meaningful about life ultimately fails to attain a life of its own.