There’s so much going on in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master—and so much of it is great: truly superb direction, design, lighting, acting, cinematography, editing, scoring—that it’s a shock to notice that it isn’t working. The problem is that it’s the size and shape of an epic, but that in content it’s something much smaller: a character sketch. It’s as if a short story had been blown up into a novel by the addition of lots of descriptive passages and scenes that make the same small observations repeated in different settings. Or it’s like one of those joke gifts when a trifling bonbon has been concealed in a humongous and expensive sequence of packages. When the credits role, you’ll be looking through the heaps of tissue paper for the point of it all.
The milieu the film explores is fascinating—a Scientology-like cult at the point where it spreads from being a family to being an organization; the birth of a religion, so to speak. If the film had taken a Robert Altman-esque approach and broadened its canvas, following more of the characters from time to time, it would have sit more happily within its epic scope. (It would have been great to have gotten to know the rabid wife a bit better, for example, or the faith-struggles of the son, or the hypocrisy of the daughter, or the paranoia of the son-in-law—all hinted at and abandoned.)
Instead, the focus is on two people, the Master, an L Ron Hubbard-like character (played with panache by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his most prodigal disciple, a hard-drinking psychologically damaged ex-Navy man who becomes the movement’s pit-bull (played with conflicted passion by Joaquin Phoenix). If the film had really wanted to focus on their relationship and their characters it might have benefited from a more intimate scale, with more attention to back-story. For example, the title character, a pseudo-scientific wanna-be mystic, remains an enigma, despite the focus and the revealing performance, because we don’t learn where he came from, what drives him, and what he wants from the other people. The central flaw in the film is why these two end up in such a relationship. Why does this wildly successful religious figure find himself so engaged with this inarticulate sailor? What does he see in him?
We get more of Phoenix’s character, because the film begins and ends with him, pre- and post-involvement with “The Cause,” and because during the key scenes of “processing,” which is a kind of regressive psychotherapy modeled on Scientology’s “auditing,” we learn about some of his past traumas. But even here, we don’t learn enough. Phoenix is so amazing—fully embodying this person in every molecule—that it’s only when the movie ends that you realize he’s remained an enigma too.
I hate to knock a film that’s an ambitious and skillful drama, because we surely are starving for such a thing amid the comic-book movies and cookie-cutter rom-coms. This is exactly the sort of thing talented American filmmakers should be doing—it reminded me of the heyday of American art films in the ’70s, when Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, and Cassavetes were exploding the well-made Hollywood film and forcing it to grapple with more of the American reality. There should be a movie about Scientology or a movie about people who are drawn to starting or following cults, or even a movie about a mentor-mentee relationship in any area of male-dom, but this movie wants to do so much that it forgets to do any one of those things well. In all the attention to executing his masterful direction, Anderson forgot to write one of those films.