David Thomson, just about the most perceptive film critic of the last 25 years, wrote this line in a critique of Rob Reiner's 1990 film Misery: "... it settled for the basic character setup rather than (being) a film about two tyrants, competing for authorship." Well, Paul Thomas Anderson knows something about tyrants and he knows a lot about authorship, and that becomes the basis for his newest film, The Master. Though much ballyhooed as an examination of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, The Master has very little to say about, or add to, our understanding of Hubbard's particular brand of cultism. It is much more a study of two opposing forces. Despite its large cast and sprawling sets, its 70 mm oceans and deserts, this is really a two character drama; Persona in a crowd.
And like Bergman's ultimate battle of wills, The Master also presents a damaged soul and a caretaker, and like Persona, it ultimately seems to suggest that the damaged among us are never as helpless as they seem, while the caretakers' motives are never quite so pure. In the end, the two characters are much more alike than they are different.
One of the convenient things about Anderson's latest film is that it is open-ended to the point that it allows a viewer to draw multiple conclusions. I see de Quincey and Lévi-Strauss, but you can probably find whoever you want buried in there. Does this make for high art? Or does it make for its own brand of, dare I say, cultism? The best thing about The Master, to me, is that it draws very detailed portraits of its two main characters without labeling one as better or more noble, without totally condemning the tyrants who struggle. Without really defining either. His movie becomes a simulacrum for its subject, or perhaps it's the other way around.
The worst thing about The Master is the way it furthers Anderson's increasing disregard for anything that does not fit into his favorite theme of father/son tyrant study. There was a time, in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, when the director could explore the battles between Eddie Adams and Jack Horner or between Frank T.J. Mackey and Earl Partridge while still engaging his audience in dramatic and suspenseful narratives. Think of the wealth of characters in those movies. But can you honestly say that anyone beyond Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood is memorable? In The Master, every character not named Freddie or Lancaster exists merely to set up the tyrant battle. (Amy Adams does get one glorious moment as Lancaster's wife, and that almost seems to come from a different movie.)
For those looking for narrative, this movie is bound to disappoint. Ultimately, There Will Be Blood will stand taller because Daniel Plainview is among the greatest tyrants in American art. Lancaster Dodd, as interesting as he may be, doesn't really come close. But Freddie Quell does, and for those looking for meaning, I would suggest you forget the L. Ron Hubbard associations and look instead at this authentic American savage. Joaquin Phoenix, who has given very good performances before, is positively transcendent here. It is a performance of a career and character to take note of.
I realize as I finish that these thoughts might be as elliptical as the movie itself, so to sum up: The Master is a movie that elevates character and theme over plot. Freddie is the savage killer; Lancaster the modern thinker. Both are capable of nobility but are doomed by selfishness. Both are inquisitive, but are afraid of real answers. Both need the other. The tragedy is that neither will ever have what they need.