At the risk of coming across as too stupid to understand "The Master," well, I guess I'm just too stupid to understand "The Master." And maybe that's a good thing.
It's not like the movie's completely naked, but it falls several pieces of clothes shy of a full wardrobe.
Starting promisingly and populated by three performances worthy of awards contention and compelling individual scenes, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus ultimately devolves into a mix of obfuscation and pointlessness. It's possible that was the point, to echo the obfuscation and pointlessness of the cultish Cause depicted in the film. But that's a point that, despite the cinematic artistry, mostly feels like a waste of my time.
Protagonist Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is captured in the midst of a meandering, mostly fruitless un-hero's journey in which title character and Cause leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays with him like a psychotic cat plays with a ball of yarn. That manipulative people can wreak havoc on the lives of vulnerable folk is not news. At the same time, it's not even clear that this is a lifechanging experience for Freddie. The flawed Walter Salles picture "On the Road," based on the Jack Kerouac masterpiece, provides an alternate path to much the same, arguably nihilistic end – had Freddie run into Dean Moriarty, the result would have been little different. The Cause, if you will, has no effect.
At one point, Dodd's son (Jesse Plemons) points out the mostly obvious fact that Dodd is making things up as he goes along. Except for his willingness to embrace the ride, I identify with that character. It gets a little too meta to think about an ostensibly fictional work in this fashion, but if Anderson had simply been making things up as he went along, would the end result have changed? If the ultimate lesson is the emptiness of the charade, how much does it matter what happens in each scene?
I'm haunted by the number of responses to "The Master" I've read since its initial screenings that said they needed to see the film again. I get that they think each successive viewing will yield a deeper understanding or appreciation. But to me, that's discouraging evidence of the very thing the film mocks, the idea that a creator can use language and image to convey the impression of substance when mostly, all you're seeing is style.
I'm not convinced that you can fully appreciate "The Master" if you leave beholden to it.