David Acton’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I wish I could fart because I'd fart in your face right now."
That line comes from Freddie Quell, but it might as well been said by Paul Thomas Anderson who's The Master is a fart in my face. It was my most anticipated film of 2012 and PTA was one of my favorite filmmakers which made the film all the more disappointing when the film turned out to be the first mediocre film from him.
The movie is about the relationship between alcoholic former sailor Freddie and bullshit spinner and L. Ron Hubbard stand in Lancaster Dodd. Anderson has even said that while editing, he whittled everything down because he realized it was a love story between the two men. The big problem I have with this and it really spreads to everything else in the film, is that he doesn't really examine or go into detail about it, the film is ambiguous throughout. We are given no reasons as to why Dodd is so drawn to Freddie, other than maybe as a drinking buddy, though it appears to go deeper than that. When asked specifically about it, Dodd gives a bullshit answer about helping him through The Cause, but since Dodd knows it's crap, that can't be the real answer, an answer we'll never know because the film is too vague.
Speaking of The Cause we never get any info on how it really works and our previous Scientology knowledge is supposed to fill in the blanks. The problem with this, however, is the the majority of people think Scientology is ridiculous so watching the characters fully buy in to it's stand in creates the impression that these people are dopes. But it's because of their sincerity that Freddie sticks around as long as he does, thinking the Cause will help him (or maybe not, there's no reason given as to why Freddie sticks around). When we see the various exercises of the Cause in use without explanation of how they will help someone, they're interesting, but we know they don't do anything, it's the appearance of substance much like the movie it's in. Seriously, can anyone explain how the "window to the wall" exercise works?
To be fair though, the movie is usually fascinating throughout (the first processing scene and the scene with them in prison are the standouts for me), but ultimately don't add up to anything. Anderson is one of the few naturally born filmmakers working today so until he decides to tell a story that's morally reprehensible, he's never going to make a terrible movie. In fact, if the movie had an actual point of view on anything, I could easily see myself thinking it's terrific. Instead Anderson's created the cinematic equivalent of the Rorschach test Freddie takes at the beginning with it's champions finding what they want to see in it while those of us who aren't blown away by it are left trying to figure out what's actually there. Regarding the title, the master is neither Dodd or Freddie, it's Anderson and this film is his Cause, whether or not you drink the kool-aid is up to you.