Lancaster Dodd—the character played with such mesmerizing assurance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—is not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard. That much should be said at the outset, given that the Scientology connection has served as a convenient tag for what Anderson’s new film is about. The notion was certainly intriguing, but anyone familiar with Anderson’s work might have guessed that some kind of straightforward docudrama was not in the offing. Perhaps one day there will indeed be a biopic that grapples with the convoluted and much-contested details of Hubbard’s scarcely credible career as spiritual entrepreneur—one might imagine a mode anywhere from satiric grotesque to Machiavellian analysis to impassioned polemic—but The Master is not that film, full though it is of hints in such directions.
It is something more interesting: a freestanding work of the imagination, a contemplative fiction. Anderson has taken whatever he needed from the early history of Scientology, drawing freely on its vocabulary, doctrines, and methods, and from much else besides, to create an intimate epic of irrational need, an inner history of cultish transactions reconfigured as a sorrowful and distinctively American poem. It is such a decisive accomplishment that it casts fresh light on Anderson’s previous films—Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and There Will Be Blood (2007)—a body of work whose coherence and astonishing ambition is clearer than ever.
“The pure products of America go crazy”: William Carlos Williams’s indelible line might serve as a motto not only for this film but for all of Anderson’s work to date. The Cause—Dodd’s quasi religion resembling Dianetics—is shown to be just such a pure product, the kind of destination that couldn’t exist if enough people didn’t desperately need to go there. When movies have attempted to show the inner life of cults and newfangled religions, they have generally sought to convey how strange they are. Anderson by contrast shows how strange they are not.
America has after all long since been the great breeding ground of self-help cults and apocalyptic sects and secret initiations, of home-brewed universal panaceas and fresh-minted pseudoscientific jargon, of occult communal bondings and shunnings. In the perspective of The Master, these are not denials but extensions and variations of American life. When Freddie Quell, the traumatized veteran incarnated unforgettably by Joaquin Phoenix, throws in his lot with the Cause, it is not as if he is fleeing from normality into an eerie shadow world. Whether inside or outside the movement, the world as he finds it is equally chaotic and unrelenting.
This is where we live, and it is a country of deep loneliness—that same loneliness that permeates all of Anderson’s films, and against which his characters are forever forming themselves into protective families or parodies of families, a population of paternalistic strangers, adoptive sons, surrogate mothers, fake cousins. All his films, different as each has been, have found their way to the heart of a peculiarly American disconnectedness. The freedom to be left alone turns into desperate drift: a desperation measured, often, in hyperactivity and baroque elaboration, as if keeping frantically busy could stave off a lurking sense of emptiness. From the start his films seemed to need to prove themselves with every composition, every line of dialogue, every cut, every music cue. The aggressiveness of style was a declaration of ambition; intending to astonish, the filmmaker made himself so visible that he was one of the characters, another creature of compulsive energy looking for a way to manifest itself.
Often the energy found an outlet in violence, not action-movie fun-fair violence, nor the systematic, “rational” violence of police and criminals, but the violence of pointless, often self-destructive, explosive outbursts—Adam Sandler destroying windows and bathrooms in fits of rage in Punch-Drunk Love or Paul Dano making an unprovoked assault on his father in There Will Be Blood—the outlet of a blind frustration that can’t wait another second. It made for a curious counterpart to the obvious and extraordinary care taken over visible and audible detail, a care that bespoke a profound devotion to the medium itself. The medium, more than the medium’s history: Anderson does not lard his films with sly references or affectionate homages to old movies, and pitches his films a bit beyond the comfort zone where one can be reassured that, after all, it’s just a movie.
The insistence on a sense of discomfort was not apparent at the outset. When I saw Anderson’s Boogie Nights for the first time (having missed his already masterful debut, Hard Eight, the year before) it seemed like the work of a drive-in Balzac, an exuberantly entertaining multicharacter analysis of a whole social swath—the unmistakable late-1970s brew of disco, porn, and cocaine as experienced in the San Fernando Valley in an era corresponding to the filmmaker’s childhood—popping from the screen in an indescribable mixture of farce, melodrama, and all too real grotesquerie.
Anderson’s ability to switch emotional registers kept the film from settling into predictable patterns of redemptive resolution. His great set pieces (a couple of long party scenes, the crazily protracted episode involving the failed rip-off of a coke dealer) had a lifelike sprawl and choppiness, and the performances he got out of then unfamiliar actors like John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, and Philip Seymour Hoffman kept things from sliding into caricature or easy pathos.
Anderson’s voracious appetite for small details, textures, gestures, verbal styles, the distinguishing marks of every period and neighborhood and clique, made him look like some kind of realist, an impressionist describer of the most fleeting varieties of social interaction, a history painter for a culture where epochs are measured in decades. It was hard to know what to expect from such a filmmaker, and Magnolia came as something of a surprise. It looked at first like an only slightly exaggerated cross-section of the present moment, tracking the random intersections of disparate lives and seemingly intending to pour into the mix everything he knew of that world (it was again the San Fernando Valley). He stirred up woozy subcurrents of shame, resentment, guilty desire, estrangement, embarrassment, and every variety of self-torment in an open-ended narrative drawing in drug addiction, cancer, child molestation, commercialized misogyny, and the exploitation of quiz kids, all set to a mournful strain of indie rock balladry and converging on the moment when each character, in isolation, started singing along with the same song.
At that point Anderson began to seem less history painter than expressionist allegorist, describing a permanent present that was also a permanent crisis, with emblematic characters who might have stepped out of a play by Strindberg or Georg Kaiser: the Dying Father, the Angry Son, the Guilty Wife, the Genius Child, roles sometimes embodied by more than one character, and all enlisted in a graph of helpless human neediness. Unappeasable neediness, with its attendant compulsions and necessary delusions, was the pervasive condition in which Magnolia was steeped. No individual could be more than a link in that chain of dependencies.
It was and was clearly intended to be too much, breaking the frame of any possible plotline and finally breaking the frame of the real altogether with a downpour of frogs. But if this was expressionism, it was an expressionism that needed scarcely more for its effects than the actual materials of a culture beyond caricature—that, and the presence of actors from whom Anderson elicits performances of astonishing urgency and exactness. It is fair to say that even if you did not care at all about the story or the photography or the music in his films you could very happily watch them just to look at what the actors are doing from moment to moment: as when, in Magnolia, John C. Reilly, as the squarest and politest cop ever, gradually edged around to imposing his authority on an uncooperative tenant, or Philip Baker Hall, as the terminally ill host of a TV quiz show, gave one last example of long-practiced, almost brain-dead glibness. But after Magnolia it was hard not to wonder where he was heading—perhaps into some stratospheric zone of New Age revelation?
That possibility always seems to lurk. Prophetic figures loom up: there was the founder of the Church of the Third Revelation in There Will Be Blood, and now the world-healing message of Lancaster Dodd in The Master. Something about the inescapable tactile presence of everything in Anderson’s movies seems to elicit such responses. They are grounded in the most oppressively solid and specific of materials—whether the nightmarish hotel and warehouse interiors of the grotesque and sometimes terrifying comedy Punch-Drunk Love or the monumental oil-drilling apparatus of the ultimately claustrophobic epic There Will Be Blood—only for all that sense of solidity to melt (in Marx’s phrase) into air.
The milieus on which Anderson focuses—the porn film business, the early oil industry, and now the rise of a modern religious franchise—can all be seen as attempts to reconfigure the real, to bring it into line with the claims of the most extravagant desire, and it is that attempt that magnifies to the utmost the sense that the world we think we know is not merely implausible but fundamentally unbelievable. When Lancaster Dodd, addressing a roomful of potential converts, suggests that “perhaps what we think we know of this world is false information,” he could, for that one moment at least, be speaking for Anderson.
These are milieus where irrationality, supplemented where necessary by blunt force, trumps any conceivable logical objection. Logicians are in any case on the sidelines in The Master. The psychiatrists who try to unravel the navy veteran Freddie Quell’s personality difficulties are no more effective than the skeptic who tries to engage Lancaster Dodd in debate at a Park Avenue reception. (The latter gets an offscreen beating, administered by Freddie, for his troubles.) In this world, there is no one in a position to object, no one to intervene. The Master, like Anderson’s earlier films but even more deliberately, kicks away any possibility of a stable mooring, a safe observation point that would enable one to put things in a more reassuring perspective.
This is accomplished right from the start in an astonishing series of scenes sketching Freddie Quell’s history from his discharge from the navy at the end of World War II—his careening flight through circumstances beyond his control—up to the moment when, by stealing aboard a yacht in California, he enters by happenstance the sphere of Lancaster Dodd and the Cause. All the rest of the film is a meticulous and sometimes agonizing parsing of the consequences of that encounter.
Freddie is an inarticulate isolato of Melvillean proportions, an inchoate chunk of jagged impulse and unfailingly awkward affect whose most purposeful activity is concocting moonshine—expertly and at any opportunity—out of any substances at hand, toxic or otherwise. Freddie is the inadaptable individual who defies labels and therapies, the son of an alcoholic father and a psychotic mother, veteran of unspecified wartime experiences that have brought him to the attention of army psychiatrists. He’s a mass of tics and sexual compulsions who improvises his life from second to second. As played by Joaquin Phoenix—“played” seems too light a word—he inhabits his body as if it were ill-fitting armor he’d been saddled with. The intelligence that beams from his eyes seems absolutely disconnected from every aspect of his being and his life. He looks as if he’d been broken apart and put back together wrong. Even his face has a life of its own, his mouth twisting at odd angles to register arcane conflicts and resistances.