There's something startlingly noncommittal about many of the initial reviews of The Master that leaked out following the impromptu screenings that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson organized in 70mm-equipped houses across the country, and later in response to the film's official bow at the Venice Film Festival. This is perhaps the natural, if not the most productive, response to a film that, like the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix, resists conforming to any preconceived template of what it could or should be.
In admitting that "Master" Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, offering a new twist on the roiling vulnerability Anderson has always highlighted in their collaborations) — the figurehead of a growing faith movement in 1950s America — was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson set up expectations of an exposé of the origins of Scientology that would satisfy everyone who clucked approvingly when Katie swept Suri from the snatches of the Sea Org. Instead, Anderson has delivered a free-form work of expressionism, mirroring Hubbard's story when convenient while strenuously avoiding direct representation. As with Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Anderson takes what he needs from history to recast his own story, yet he has never made a film so elusive.
Structurally similar to Blood, The Master begins with the story of how an iconoclast joins a community that he'll then struggle to live within, leading to a final confrontation with a man with whom he shares an adversarial and primal connection. Here, that iconoclast is Freddie (Phoenix), a Navy man in the South Pacific in the waning days of World War II. He's a pervert and a drunk who's equally likely to kick a party into high gear by whipping up homemade booze or bring it to a dead halt by acting like a fucking weirdo. Did the war do it to him, or did collective catastrophe give him a space in which to almost blend in? Forced to assimilate back into the real world, he takes a gig as a department-store photographer. He's probably in it for access to chemicals he can treat as liquor, but the job also gives this longtime itinerant a measure of control — in a circus replica of post-war domestic-consumer fantasy: He can be in the system and at the same time gnaw away at it. That's a mode of being that he'll repeat. Always on the run from some scrape, Freddie eventually ends up passing out drunk on a yacht carrying Dodd and his family.
"Above all, I am a man," Dodd tells Freddie. "Just like you." Dodd teaches Freddie not to apologize for who he is — namely, "a scoundrel" — but also makes it plain that to accept the literal free ride the Dodds can offer, Freddie will have to submit to the Master's conversion therapy. His teachings are mostly designed to help followers control their emotions by accessing their past experiences, either in their current lives or previous ones.
The Master's "processing" is surely modeled to some extent on Scientology's "auditing," but the exercises Dodd leads his followers through are not unlike what might have gone on in the era's acting classes. Processing puts Freddie inside scenes and feelings from his past — essentially the state method acting tries to get to through affective memory. If what The Master is "about" can even be boiled down, then it might be about acting: To ask if a person's nature is inherently fixed or if it can be engineered from the outside is to essentially ask if one person can teach another how to act.
The film rises and falls on the magnetic pull between its stars, the inexplicable loyalty they feel to each other. We're never fully allowed inside their bond, in part because Anderson refuses to give viewers a fixed point of emotional identification. The film's ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson's use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. The viewing experience, akin to grabbing for something just out of reach in a dream, is neatly mirrored by one of Dodd's exercises, in which Freddie is forced to pace a room and describe the same wall and the same window with new language each time. It's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible — or even advisable.