Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has garnered beaucoup headlines in the run-up to its recent release, in that it is loosely based on the life and times of L. Ron Hubbard and his mid-century organization known as Scientology. What with Tom and Katie going domestically south, lots of interested parties got all hot and bothered about how hard the film would hit the already beleaguered sect.
Now, I'm just speculating here, but it would appear to me that the self-help scheme dreamed up by a megalomaniacal science fiction writer has little to worry about. Scientology — renamed "The Cause" in The Master — doesn't appear to be a dangerous cult that divides families and empties its devotées wallets, but is portrayed as a genteel-if-daffy adulteration of standard-issue Freudian principles concerning repression of past traumas and how to bring them into the light of day.
And Philip Seymour Hoffman — playing cult leader Lancaster Dodd — comes across more avuncular than he does fire-and-brimstone, less a psychotic snake-oil salesman than a dotty old grandpa with a daftly-designed mission to save mankind from its own worst instincts. His toughest convert: an ex-sailor named Freddie Quell (played by a demonically possessed Joaquin Phoenix), who is a violent, PTSD-sufferer who punches first and asks questions later.
Together, the two of them star in what must be regarded as the strangest "buddy picture" in the history of the cinema. At once homoerotic and rocket-fueled by Quell's near-toxic, home-brewed hooch, the only scenes in The Master with any crack or sizzle are the ones between these two canny actors going head to head in a contest of iron wills. Phoenix (overly-invoking memories of Brando and Clift and Dean) was obviously given license by Anderson to not only chew the scenery, but to spit it out and chew it again, perhaps because the story itself is so damnably circular and undramatic. It is a novel of ideas filmed in glorious 70MM, but with no palpable or satisfying end in sight.
As an exercise in pure cinema, P.T. Anderson is to be congratulated for filming scenes that compel one's eyes to take them all in hungrily, though perhaps too much in the mode of how one regards a bloody wreck on the freeway. None of the characters in this Cope Opera are faintly redeemable, but they are supremely watchable, especially Phoenix, whose volatility and twisted visage are a study in unbridled pain and untamable fury.
That last word suggests Shakespeare's famous phrase from a far more coherent script called Macbeth. Life is referred to by Big Mac as a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." P.T. Anderson is no idiot, but this 2.5 hour encounter session adds up to less than nothing by the end, just a series of methodically acted scene studies in search of a resolution that never arrives. Rarely has so much talent and good intentions gone so terribly awry. Here's hoping Anderson is not going all Orson Welles on us — he is far too talented to lose sight of his strength: a small story well-told (like Punch Drunk Love, my favorite of his films by far).