If you ever wanted to watch Joaquin Phoenix fling himself from one side of a room to touch a wall and fling himself back to touch a window, describing how both feel in alternately concrete and abstract terms, over and over and over again, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is the movie for you.
This film is a chore. By now you probably know that it is kinda-sorta about Scientology and that Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd character is kinda-sorta L. Ron Hubbard, in that he heads a small cult of weirdos. Much of The Master is devoted to the "processing" of World War II veteran drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) through Lancaster's pseudoscientific methods. The supposed goal is to "bring man back to his inherent state of perfect," but what we see is good, old-fashioned brainwashing that Anderson lets play out for minutes on end, necessary repetition and all.
In one respect, this is engaging: as Lancaster drills Freddie, we play along, answering his ridiculous questions ("Have you ever had sex with a member of your family?") in our own heads and carrying out his orders (don't blink). In another, it is tedious. It's a series of tests where the results don't matter and are faulty anyway since they lack scientific foundation, from what we can tell from the small amount of information we receive. That they are being conducted and taken by unknowable characters made me wonder repeatedly why I should care about any of it, or why I was watching the film at all.
The initial draw for me was that this is a PTA film, and Anderson is a Great American Filmmaker. The Master is so emptily ponderous, so happy to take its time to say not very much at all and, on top of all that, so bursting with craft that I got the sense that it, too, is aware of its own importance. For this, it reminded me of The Dark Knight Rises, and I was just as disappointed.
There is a lot to appreciate but little to love in The Master. We get an idea of what indoctrination looks like, but it is no exposé. Its sideways recounting of (some of) history reminded me of Boogie Nights, an abstract of the porno chic era where all the names and several of the dates were changed. But at least that movie was fun, at least its script had momentum, at least some of its characters' motivations were clear.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie as a hunched over and muttering PTSD-suffering stray dog, uncontrollable libido and all. He looks a decade or two older than he is. His unpredictability is predictable. He's so real that he's dull, like a villain who's played too well to be truly appreciated. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster with a dandy's zest, upright and theatrical. He's playing a player, and those roles tend to impress inherently. He's fine. The bit players like Amy Adams feel underused. Laura Dern has about five minutes of screen time and her character is as important as any other besides Freddie and Lancaster, which is to say, not at all.
This is a character study of two men who begin and end the movie shrouded in mystery. The effect is like being able to read every fourth word of a biography. Lancaster is all polish except for a few cracks, Freddie is mostly just cracked, but between them they can't muster a portrait worth looking at. Anderson, who also wrote the inert script, errs too much on the side of subtlety and the subtext (particularly about just how much of a fraud Lancaster is) is far more fascinating than the text. That is an impressive trick to pull off, and I don't doubt that it is exactly what Anderson was attempting to accomplish.
His intentions, though, leave us with over two hours of film about uncertainty and essence. It's about as moving as a visit to a department store perfume counter and as satisfying as a one-time trip to a Scientology center.