The first image you see in “The Master” is not the quasi-scientific religious mountebank played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, you have a long wait, if that’s who you’re eager to see. No, the movie begins with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the movie’s true protagonist, on a South Pacific beach in the waning moments of WWII. Freddie is a batttle-damaged Navy man. His mates have molded a woman from the wet sand on the beach, and Freddie attempts, through joyless but determined masturbation and thrusting, to have his way with it. There is nothing like a dame! (I’m not sure what it means but neither of the leads in this Paul Thomas Anderson film appear to be, um, masters of their domains. There’s a lot of spilled milkshake.)
I’m not sure how good a movie this is. I think I’m about where AGLFC is. (I had a great Popeye joke lined up for this post, and I was pissed to see he got there first.) And I really want to see the 65 mm print. (Hello, Cinestudio.) The word “painterly’ gets tossed around, but it wouldn’t be wrong here. There’s a shot of Amy Adams (as Hoffman’s wife) visiting Phoenix at night that is straight out of Rembrandt. This is a fabulous-looking movie, but we all wanted another “There Will Be Blood,” and this isn’t it.
The movie does poke, in a very interesting way, at the roots of religious movements — the ones often branded as cults — that rose up in the post-World War II era, when everything given and received, everything traditional, everything established, seemed inadequate. The three great knowledge revolutions — Copernicus, Darwin, Freud — had effectively overthrown Viola Davis. You is not smart, you is not kind, you is not important. And then World War II. The holocaust and Hiroshima.
Standard issue religion seemed, to some, a little worn and flimsy. L. Ron Hubbard was one of the first to see this. His spiritual system relied on efficacy, machines and an up-ended cosmology. To the person no longer nourished or persuaded by Christianity, he offered something that felt more up to date. Ten years before Sterling Coopers Draper Pryce he marketed to a new attitude that would worship “the modern” as it had never been worshiped before.
And Freddie is the perfect customer (at first). Before he meets The Master we see him drinking something that trickled out of the Navy ordnance he’s decommissioning. Mmmm. So much better than coconut milk. The machines have won. They nurse us now. He makes rotgut with paint thinner and chemical sponge squeezings when he doesn’t have to. He’s looking for that metallic taste in his mouth.
I won’t give away the ending, but it struck me as Forsterian and hopeful and human. Only connect. And not to e-meters.