Dir. Paul Thomason Anderson
(2012, R, 137 minutes)

The first line I wrote in the notes I took following The Master was, “I don’t know what Paul Thomas Anderson is getting at.” But the more notes I took the more I sorta think I figured it out. The subtextual meaning of the film hinges on one scene, which I can’t describe without revealing too much, though even if I gave it away my interpretation is probably open to interpretation.

I’ll start by saying that The Master is probably my least favorite film by Paul Thomas Anderson, though that itself is not a damning criticism. There’s never been an Anderson film I’ve disliked: Boogie Nights and Magnolia are exceptional. Punch-Drunk Love is an underrated gem. There Will Be Blood dazzled me in-between occasional bouts of puzzlement. (I have not seen his first film, Hard Eight.)

Joaquin Phoenix, as Freddie Quell

The Master starts strong, introducing us to World War II vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and showing us how little institutional support there is for a traumatized soldier trying to readjust to civilian life. We learn his mother is in a mental institution and his father was an alcoholic, and Freddie seems to have won both genetic jackpots, so it’s no surprise that he struggles to hold a job and control his impulses.

During he wayward wanderings, Freddie finds himself on a boat captained by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher.” He has started a movement called the Cause, which bears more than a slight resemblance to Scientology, and takes on Freddie as his protege.

The rest of the film details the complex and often contentious relationship between Freddie and Lancaster, and between Freddie and the Cause. Freddie wants to believe. He wants to access his past lives and rid himself of his volatility and rage. Mostly, though, he wants to please Lancaster, who saw something in him when he had nowhere else to go.

But the film’s pacing is slow, and scenes don’t build from one to the next. I felt like I was watching a sequence of arresting moments, but not a story taking shape. We hear some of the principles of the Cause, which are mostly absurd (“He’s making it up as he goes along,” says Lancaster’s own son). We see Freddie struggle to practice what it preaches. We see the paranoid distrust of Lancaster’s family, including his prim wife Peggy (Amy Adams, in an icily effective performance with Lady-Macbeth undertones). But we don’t get much more than that. The film is all setup and no payoff.

Until the very end, which contextualizes many of the scenes that came before, giving the film an entire new dimension. But is it enough to compensate for two hours of storytelling drift? I would have to see it a second time to decide if and how it plays differently with foreknowledge, until which time I’m left with a film that’s better in hindsight than it was in sight.