Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" has the blue prints for a masterpiece, with two powerhouse performances. But the story falls flat. It also has a well-earned R rating, for lengthy nude scenes, strong language and sexual content. The film tells the story of Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a cult known as "The Cause." Anderson denies his fictitious group is modeled after Scientology, but viewers will note several parallels between the two. Unfortunately for the audience, the film offers no clear-cut evidence about whether "The Cause" ever existed, although the historic setting helps suggest it was based on a true story. But the story merely hints at the idea of a cult, the vulnerability of people and one man's obsession for control.
Freddy Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is fresh off the boat from WWII, bumbling through life, drunk, desperate and subconsciously seeking significance. His alcohol dependency, violent attacks and sex addiction reveal unpredictable tendencies that keep the story veering into constant tension. Quell often wanders aimlessly and one day passes out on a stranger's yacht. When he wakes, he learns the boat belongs to Dodd, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Dodd tells Quell, "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you." Dodd's congregation of disciples refers to him as "The Master." He's often the man with the microphone, whose science fiction theories are not to be analyzed as opinion but accepted as gospel.
It is Dodd's confidence, education and madness that give him the leadership role above all others. But Anderson leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether a heavily admired man is above reproach. Although cults like "The Cause" are less common today, celebrities who build an identity or a brand can become "The Master" of their fan base. These "masters" have their own moral, political and spiritual agenda that influence millions who follow blindly. One of the film's central themes declares that "one opinion is the basis of a cult." But the film doesn't tell us how to define what a cult really is.
"The Master" captures some visually stunning scenes and performances that will no doubt become Oscar contenders. Anderson crafted a beautiful movie. But the story is all question and no answer.