Over Paul Thomas Anderson's still rather young career, he's repeatedly drawn male characters whose ambition seems to be a direct byproduct of intense loneliness. Some of these characters do well to mask their inner turmoil and thus tend to succeed immediately and obviously in the eyes of those around them, in spite of their suffering (Dirk Diggler, Frank T.J. Mackey, Daniel Plainview), while others struggle to suppress their isolation-induced anxiety beneath a paper-thin layer of confidence, even if they find private yet meaningful triumph later on (Buck Swope, Jim Kurring, Barry Egan). In that respect, the two main characters in Anderson's sixth film, The Master, are quite familiar. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is a direct descendant of Frank T.J. Mackey and Daniel Plainview, a calculating snake-oil salesman and ringleader, composed yet volatile, who is singularly focused on a mission of conquest, while Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a hard-drinking sailor turned photographer turned cult lab rat, has a damaged aimlessness that reminds chiefly of Barry Egan. And yet what's strikingly different about Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell, in relation to Anderson's oeuvre, is that for all the ways they evoke their antecedents, and for all the time Anderson allows us to observe them, they are very difficult men to know.
The same could be said of The Master itself: it's a difficult movie to know. Filmed in 65mm, it offers luscious visuals with rich colors and dramatic focal contrasts, and yet its themes are opaque. For example: Lancaster Dodd's "The Cause" movement, focused on returning man to his "inherent state of perfect," clearly mirrors L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, but The Master doesn't seem to be a commentary on Scientology specifically or religion in general; Lancaster is the architect of "The Cause," but we can only guess what motivates him; Freddie is a lost soul, but we never fully understand what disturbs him; the relationship between Lancaster and Freddie is both paternal and homoerotic; Lancaster's wife, Amy Adams' Peggy Dodd, is a dutiful servant of "The Cause," or maybe its secret puppeteer; and so on. Anderson might be interested in how cults prey on the vulnerabilities of the purposeless, or he might be using Freddie's post-World War II trauma as a stand-in for our modern wave of war-inspired Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or he might be intrigued by the contradictions of someone like Lancaster, who seems to believe what he's peddling despite an awareness that he's making it up as he goes along. Or maybe all of those things. Or none of them. For certain, The Master is about characters searching for and struggling to find a deeper truth, and audiences may find that the film's deeper truth is equally elusive.
Maybe that's as it should be, because a man who is truly lost has no deeper truth to discover. Freddie Quell is that lost man, played by Phoenix in one of the most fully committed performances you'll ever see — one that, more than ever, makes his stunt turn in I'm Still Here seem like a terrible waste of his time and talent. Freddie's posture is like a question mark, or maybe a hooded cobra — back hunched, shoulders thrust forward. His expression suggests a serpentine question mark, too: Freddie's mouth, save for a few rare smiles, is stuck in grimace of anger and apathy, and his eyes, when not flashing with rage, are dark and empty. But what stands out above all else is Freddie's odd energy. If the phrase "uncomfortable in his own skin" didn't already exist, we'd have to create it for him. Several scenes in The Master contrast Freddie's fidgety air, enhanced by Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score, with the calm of purposefulness around him. Freddie is going several directions at once and yet nowhere at all, and we can see it. In terms of awesomeness, Phoenix's Freddie Quell is right up there with Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview (maybe these guys are "brothers from another mother"), and yet despite a pair of scenes designed to unlock Freddie's trauma by exploring his remorse over a lost love affair, Freddie remains a more distant figure. He's not unlike a zoo animal — an image Anderson appears to suggest in a lengthy sequence in which Freddie paces between a wall and a window in front of an audience fascinated by his odd antics, and another scene in which Freddie is actually caged.
By comparison, Lancaster Dodd is more approachable, and yet he isn't more accessible. Not at all. Whereas Freddie's oddness seems to have a simple explanation (plain crazy), Lancaster is truly enigmatic. We can only speculate about Lancaster's self-awareness, his goals, his desires and his inspirations. About all we know for sure is that "Master" likes a stage — which is why Hoffman, one of cinema's most arresting performers, is the perfect man for the role — and that he likes Freddie. As a curiosity? As a challenge? As a son? As something more? Again, we can only speculate. But what's interesting is that Freddie, who doesn't like much of anything beyond a hard drink, likes Lancaster, too, albeit without believing in "The Cause." (At least twice, Freddie lashes out when someone speaks against "The Cause," but those outbursts are a product of his desire to protect Lancaster, not the movement. In fact, it's unclear if Freddie even understands the movement.) Lancaster is the only friend that Freddie's got, as Lancaster himself reminds him, but for all the ways that Freddie needs Lancaster, perhaps Lancaster needs Freddie even more: if "The Cause" can't cure Freddie, maybe man's inherent state isn't "perfect" after all.
The most powerful scene in the film puts Lancaster and Freddie across the table from one another in a staring contest confessional in which Freddie must answer a series of personal questions without blinking. This "processing" exercise looks a lot like Scientology's "auditing" exercise minus an E-meter, but the intensity of the exchange creates an electricity all its own, with Freddie fighting to keep his eyes open and dropping his guard in the process. This scene reveals what I believe is Anderson's greatest gift as a filmmaker: his talent for connecting us with the emotional vibrations of characters at the breaking point. It's Amber Waves after she's lost her custody battle in Boogie Nights. It's Jim Kurring after he's lost his gun in Magnolia. It's Barry Egan after he's lost control in the street in Punch-Drunk Love. It's Daniel Plainview after he's lost his best friend (his son) in There Will Be Blood. It's the half-dozen similar examples from PTA's work that probably came to your mind as you read those past few sentences. (Note: I've left out references to Hard Eight only because it's been so long since I've seen it that I don't trust my memory; I need to remedy that.) And so the disappointment of The Master is that it provides unblinking views of these characters without allowing us much of a chance to get beyond their defenses.
This uncharacteristic absence of empathy is counterbalanced to some degree by Anderson's unmistakable passion for filmmaking itself. The Master's production design is magnificent, and many of its images rival the best of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick: a small ship (or is it a large boat?) sailing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; sailors with flashlights climbing through the jungle-gym innards of a warship's torpedo bay; Freddie running for his life across the soft topsoil of a freshly plowed field; and so on. The Master never makes it difficult to be "in the moment" — it has a tremendous power of place — but it is difficult to feel its emotions. Watching it in 70mm at the AFI Silver, I was struck by a sensation that reminded me of seeing Steven Soderbergh's Che and Olivier Assayas' Carlos: every second is impeccable, but very little of it is affecting. Still, I'm already making plans to see it a second time next week, reminding myself that Magnolia is the only PTA picture that moved me without reservation the first time through. Maybe I'll find a portal into the film's deeper truth next time, aided by the analyses of other critics that I can't wait to start reading. But for now I look at The Master the way Lancaster Dodd looks at Freddie Quell late in the film: fascinated by what's in front of me, yet unconvinced I'll ever get beyond the void.