I can recall how when “Apocalypse Now” first came out, viewers almost universally loathed the ending. After the forward motion of the first two hours, the film seemed to just run out of steam; Brando’s shadowy rambling seemed an anticlimax, and reports that Francis Ford Coppola had agonized for months over how to end it didn’t help. And yet viewed now, it seems perfect, like the only logical conclusion.
Maybe decades from now we’ll think the same about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” which is a very good film for seven or eight innings until it suddenly finds itself unable to put the ball over the plate. Working off some intense performances by Joaquin Phoenix as an alcoholic World War II vet with a short fuse (what we’d now call PTSD) and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an L. Ron Hubbard sort of culty spiritual huckster, Anderson builds a gripping push-pull chemistry between the guru and his roughneck disciple. But unlike Col. Kurtz and Cpt. Willard — or even Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in “There Will be Blood” — the end of their journey feels like a cop-out, extremely vague and unsatisfying.
“The Master” will keep you gripped up until then, thanks largely to Phoenix, whose troubled vet Freddie Quell is the most complex antihero in American cinema since Robert De Niro’s boxer in “Raging Bull.” Fond of making mind-altering cocktails with whatever alcohol and chemicals are at hand, Freddie is a word-slurring ball of rage and insecurity, which makes him an irresistible test subject for Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his id-revealing method of “processing” (modeled loosely on the Church of Scientology’s “auditing”).
In all his films Anderson has been fascinated with the dodgy side of the American dream, those people who make it via something other than honest hard work, whether it’s the airhead porn stars of “Boogie Nights” or the slimy male-empowerment guru of “Magnolia.” His other main theme has been twisted father figures (Philip Baker Hall in both “Hard Eight” and “Magnolia,” Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights”, Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will be Blood”), and that’s surely present in Hoffman’s character here, an overbearing fraud who seems to be making it up as he goes along.
Yet the central irony of “The Master” is that for being a film about digging into one’s emotions and psyche to find the root issues that drive a man, we wind up knowing less about Freddie and Dodd and what really drives their relationship than any Anderson characters to date. Does Freddy reject his “master,” or does the master reject him? Or is Dodd envious of Freddy’s ornery inability to tie himself down? Is Dodd in fact really the master, or is his steely wife Peggy (Amy Adams) the real power behind the throne?
The film is loaded with “WTF?” moments, where you’re not sure exactly what you’re watching or whose perspective it’s supposed to be from, like when a roomful of women suddenly become nude around Dodd, or a repeated flashback to a war-traumatized Freddie making love to a sand-sculpted “woman” on a beach. Plenty of gray areas for a viewer to toss around in his head, for sure, but much of this seems to be deliberately obscurantist.