One of Paul Thomas Anderson's best qualities as a dramatist is that he knows the value of a minor gesture. His style is measured and deliberate, but it's also true that he's less overtly meticulous or detail-oriented than, say, Stanley Kubrick, to whom he's increasingly compared. Anderson's sensibility hovers a few degrees above the minutia: In his films, the focus is on the repetition of a phrase, a trickle of blood down a forehead, a tracking shot into a club. These gestures carry all the weight. In his underrated Punch-Drunk Love, the "big" moments—Adam Sandler's sudden explosions of rage, for instance—had a gravity at odds with their otherwise largely comic surroundings, and that dissonance proved dynamic and interesting. His major follow-up, There Will Be Blood, dived headlong in the other direction, swung like an iron fist away from dynamism and toward an unwavering, one-note brutalism equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. Anderson's characteristic gestures oscillated there between depressing and alarming (often very unexpectedly, as when a long piece of drilling machinery falls and crushes a rig worker suddenly), each horror stacked upon the last like a mounting tower of pain and suffering. The ultimate effect was substantial: There Will Be Blood remains something of a high-water mark for a cinema of blistering miserablism, and, now that The Master has arrived and proved disappointing, it's still P.T. Anderson's best film.
The Master's self-contained minor gestures are standalone pleasures strung together like beads on a string. When these moments arrive, Anderson is operating in top form; the problem is simply that, unlike the films which came before it, The Master boasts too few of them. In other words, it coasts: Where his earlier work seemed often fit to burst with the verve of tiny niceties, The Master drifts for long expanses, like the wanderer at the heart of the film, running on only the fumes of drama and action. As befits a filmmaker accustomed to working on broad canvases, the themes Anderson deigns to tackle here are de facto capital-M Major, his dual subjects suitably larger than life; odd, then, that the film itself feels so withdrawn and scaled back, like an aspiring epic rendered slight in manner and form. That his approach has been thoroughly pared down sounds, in theory, like a process of considered simplification, and a more generous reading could ascribe its slender figure to a desire to challenge or subvert expectations. But the overall thinness of the film—what is, frankly, a lack of substance beneath its cool, well-composed aesthetic and two perfectly riveting performances—feels more like an uncharacteristic cop-out than some kind of sly or subversive coup.
Ostensibly the story of an obliquely characterized drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who befriends the charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a burgeoning, insidious cult in the 1950s, The Master seems, perhaps surprisingly, considerably more interested in the nebulous, counterintuitive nature of the relationship which develops between them than in the cult which forms the backdrop of the story, and the decision to keep the focus fixed in that direction comes to be both the most interesting and frustrating aspect of the narrative. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, pretty clearly modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, has by the film's end published only two volumes of scripture and has only spoken to a small congregation of followers, and though understanding that the Cause is based at least in part on Scientology helps us to imagine its scope by comparison to a real-world corollary, the film never otherwise endeavors to situate the cult in any film-specific cultural or historical context; as a result, we never gain any real sense of how large or influential the Cause is at any given time, which makes it feel like a function of the plot rather than a central, fully realized part of it.
Deemphasizing the particulars of the cult's operations in this way was in a sense a pretty brazen narrative elision, and though it's the most problematic restriction of the film's scope, it's also one of its principal sources of interest: Our focus shifts, almost by necessity, away from the cult as a serious institution or corrupting force and toward its central figures as characters not strictly defined by it. Phoenix's demented, ever-somnambulant Freddie Quell, in particular, seems perpetually out of synch with dynamics of the group to which he belongs, and his apparent disinterest in the details of the religion he embraces is probably the best case for the film's own detachment from the same—a line of reasoning one can accept abstractly without deeming it a virtue. Quell's grasp of the events unfolding around him is strictly tenuous throughout his exploits, so it seems reasonable, at least theoretically, that we ought to remain as clueless as our surrogate. But aimlessness and confusion form a less interesting basis for narrative drama than the workings of one of the world's most pervasive and influential cult.
Dodd, for his part, lords over his followers with precisely the insidious manipulation of the best cult leaders (and, for that matter, fascists, a parallel not lost on Anderson); the fact that the content of his belief system is mostly elided while the rhetoric is retained suggests, in an oblique and not totally satisfying way, that the speaker has far more power than the sermon. In other words, the essence of the Cause is arbitrary, an idea explicated in a scene in which Laura Dern's character, a loyal adherent to the word of her master, is shouted down after questioning the changing of a key word in Dodd's latest book. This moment serves a clear dramatic purpose (its volume alone adds a bit of dramatic heft during a particularly ponderous stretch), but it doesn't quite land as a turn of the screw of late-film character development; following two hours of general consistency from Dodd, it doesn't seem very credible that he'd backtrack on a major element of his unifying philosophy so explicitly—or make a mistake so obvious.
Part of what's interesting about these characters is how full-bodied and three-dimensional they feel; they're complicated, confused collections of contradictory impulses and unclear motivations, so it isn't difficult to imagine an action or decision that can't be definitively accounted for. Besides, Phoenix and Hoffman embody their respective heroes so intensely and immersively (these performances are transformative both verbally and physically, until neither are completely recognizable as themselves) that the characters seem rich and believable even when their motivations remain vague (nearly always) or their actions occasionally baffle (frustratingly often). There's even a pervading sense that we don't know and may never know what it is that draws Dodd and Quell to one another in the first place, and there's no easily perceivable explanation for why Quell gravitates toward Dodd's cult given his apparent lack of interest in it as a way of life, or why Dodd seems so invested in having his newfound—and highly dissimilar—friend work so closely to an operation so important to him (the suggestion is floated that he regards Quell as a protégé, but the bond seems more credibly based on friendship—or perhaps suppressed romance—than any kind of potential business prospect).
That quality, again, is both a virtue and a fault: It's always a pleasure to see two meaty, conspicuously actorly performances given room to breathe on screen. But because a central dimension of those performances is their fundamental impenetrability (the actors always look like they're thinking something cogent and in character even if we can't discern precisely what it is), the film, to a distressing degree, remains itself woefully impenetrable. Had more authorial energy been expended establishing other points of entry into the world of the film beyond the psychology of its major players, The Master might still betray a convincing sense of inner depth and richness. But reduced to this level of relative austerity (by Anderson's standards), and with the minor gestures which make his films what they are stripped down and left lacking, The Master feels rather meager, a pale revision of a sensibility that until now served the director well.
And it's a shame. There's much to admire about The Master, including another serious, propulsive score from Johnny Greenwood and more of the immaculate shooting and editing for which Anderson is well known. But where There Will Be Blood inspired awe, The Master inspires only mild curiosity, the feeling that something is missing. An early scene on a boat finds Quell undergoing "some informal processing," a free-association psychology exam conducted with an almost sadistic intensity by Dodd, and though fleeting, it's totally riveting, and might be the best minor gesture Anderson has ever mustered. But the film isolates it, cutting away soon and never returning to anything like it; the two never have "processing" sessions again, and the only other times we see Dodd practicing his religion among others, it's either brief and muted (early, at a dinner party) or over-extended and belabored (later, when he forces Quell to pull a Lil Jon and go from the window to the wall). That scene suggests the movie The Master might have been, integrating the operational substance of the cult with the psychological robustness of the characters, using one to dig deep within the other and vice versa. But the moment it finds this ideal footing, it falls out of it again, eventually settling into a rhythm of repetition and inaction that's quite dull by comparison. That's a crucial flaw: The rest lacks impact. The Master is Anderson with the edges sanded off, the best bits shorn down to nubs.