The Master

The Master ★★★★½

The allegory at the heart of There Will Be Blood, of the war between religion and capital for the soul of the American people, was compelling right up until the moment that it fell apart under the weight of its own strained metaphor. This owed in part to the spartan Kubrickisms of the film's style, but also to the simple fact that Anderson made a war of bitter rivals out of two sides who have long been close bedfellows. The Master, taking Scientology for its inspiration, is at first blus a corrective to this, though on its original release I attributed its lack of follow-through on this notion to a defect in Anderson's script, which gradually lets the air out of its incredible first act until the entire film seems to turn to vapor.

Returning to it in the wake of Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread, however, the film seems less like a failure of Anderson's overly literal first phase and more like the start of his entry into the current, more abstract period of his work. Less concerned with treating the Cause as a 1:1 stand-in for Hubbard's cult, The Master is more attuned to the way that such a cult could fester in the postwar era (on that subject, I recommend Kent Jones' essay on the film, which places both Scientology and the Cause on a timeline with American religious revivals, cod-eastern mysticism and spiritual pseudoscience dating back to the Great Awakening). Freddie Quell is certainly not the embodiment of the postwar, everyman veteran; Phoenix's performance is one of near-deformation, exaggerating his cleft palate into a permanent Bell's palsy sneer and hunching his back into the pose of a caged animal. But Quell is something like a dumping ground for decades of slowly simmering angst let loose by the atomic age: lingering Prohibition aftershocks in the fuel and paint thinner cocktails he makes, as-yet upended sexual mores that chafe his lack of inhibitions, and the violent trauma of WWII on a man both fulfilled and broken by said violence.

Lancaster Dodd offers a total contrast: serenity, intelligence, good humor, a man who seems to have all the answers. It's obvious from the get-go that Dodd is a conman with a host of cold reading tricks and grifter elocution, but Anderson is not interested in merely exposing the man. Instead, he is more interested in how a man like Dodd gains power, how his method wins good-faith converts from a wide range of people unified by their sense that something about themselves and the world around them is off. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives his greatest performance here, laying a pool of roiling magma just under the surface of Dodd's veneer of calm to make the relationship between Dodd and Quell not a battle between polarities but a constantly sliding series of alignments in which the two characters dance around the same fractured being/

The distended, disconnected nature of the plot progression no longer bothers me; now I can see how much it fits within the psychological pull of the Cause and how the deeper one sinks the less anything of the outside world, including time's passage, seems to register. The episodic structure is hypnotic even as it is as discordant as Johnny Greenwood's broken-string chamber score. That which seems to answer all only reveals more and more sharp edges and frayed logic, to the point that even a sap like Quell can spot the bullshit. In the end, though, there is no condemnation, only the tragedy of one man's failed quest, though whether it is to solve mankind's ills or simply to help a friend is no longer, uh, clear.