People weren’t walking out in droves from the suburban cinema in which we saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master because there weren’t droves there: just perhaps eight or nine people. But they did all walk out, in a slow trickle that started about halfway through the film. Staying there made us feel like loyalists in a lost cause – the future of film perhaps – but I’m not sure we were less bewildered or even less bored than those who had left. The Master does not tell a gripping story. It doesn’t tell a story at all.

It’s not that there is nothing going on in the movie, and we weren’t only bewildered and bored. We were also, intermittently, intrigued, daunted, amused, troubled. The very metaphor of the cause that I have just used is borrowed from the film, where something called the Cause (and distinctly resembling Scientology) is one of its elusive subjects. The questions it asks, again and again (in a way it doesn’t do anything else), are whether charisma can be portrayed and/or inspected and whether a charismatic leader can help anyone who seriously needs help.

The answers seem to be yes, no and no. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the Master is remarkable because it makes charisma seem so unsteady and so complicated. He is lordly, mischievous, scoundrelly, conniving, bullying, petulant, perfectly in control, half out of control, always slithering from the posture of the sage into that of the snake-oil salesman. But then this brilliant picture is not an inspection or exploration of the person or the type, it’s a fascinated trailing after him. When he abruptly loses his temper two-thirds of the way through the film, thoroughly shocking one of his devoted rich acolytes played by Laura Dern, it’s the same temper and the same loss we have seen twice already. We’re not shocked, this is not a revelation to us as it is to Dern. The repetition has its eerie force, though. We have long realised that the Master is his own permanent self-invention, and we finally see that there is no limit to the vast contentment with which he can keep putting together the self he so enjoys and admires. Nothing unsettles him for long: defections, hostile questions, doubt, imprisonment, all small bumps in the long right road. At the end of the film, still smiling with an air of benevolence that would scare the life out of anyone not seeking to grovel, he says: ‘Everyone needs a master.’ He doesn’t mean he needs one. He means everyone needs him, and if they imagine they don’t they are doomed.

The Master’s counterpart, disciple and victim is Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix with a lurid tormented charm which spreads all over the large bright screen and makes you long for the days of lower definition and poorer visibility. He hunches his shoulders, twists his mouth, often talks unintelligibly, as if knowing what he is actually saying were a privilege he jealously wants to keep to himself. We first see him in the navy at the end of World War Two, frustrated, lonely, willing to fall in a frenzy on a woman made of sand as long as she has breasts that stick up sharply enough. The memory of this effigy recurs throughout the movie, and at the end, having found and lost and found the Master again, Freddie picks up a girl who has the right sort of breasts and is much more relaxed and amusing than any piece of Pacific beach could be. Perhaps he’s cured.

But cured of what? After the war, identified as a potential misfit in any arrangement where fitting might be required, Freddie becomes a photographer in a department store, cuts cabbages in a California field, and runs away to sea when the liquor he has become an expert at mixing – from paint thinner and various engine fuels – almost kills a man. The boat he hops onto belongs to, or is rented by, the Master, named Lancaster Dodd, who also has a taste for paint thinner. And so begins the weird relationship that so statically dominates the rest of the movie.

The Master believes we can make a future for ourselves by visiting and setting in order our previous lives: not our past lives but the ones we had as other people before we were born. That’s where the trouble lies – an ingenious transfer of Freud’s notion of infancy. We do this through something called ‘processing’, which in the samples offered to us is a cross between hypnosis and interrogation by the FBI. There are some fine shots of Freddie and the Master in close-up, Freddie resisting, contorting his face, slapping his head, the Master repeating his questions ad nauseam, smiling away. Are they getting anywhere? This seems to be the wrong question. They are getting to where they were at their first meeting and where they will be when they part at the end of the movie. They are locked in an involvement that reflects resistance and loyalty on Freddie’s part – he is always beating up critics of the Master, as if that is the only way he can fully show his allegiance – and what feels like a strange kindness on the Master’s part, since he won’t banish Freddie even though he knows he will never become a disciplined follower or a disciplined anything. The Master is told this repeatedly by his wife, played by Amy Adams, with a clear-eyed, pretty, lunatic sincerity which is more terrifying than anything else in the film. The Master grandly ignores her.

The relationship between the two men is perfectly pictured in two very vivid scenes. One is set in a prison, where the Master has been taken for debt and Freddie for fighting violently with the police officers who came to haul the Master off. The two men are put in cells side by side, and the camera stares at them from a middle distance, allowing the cell divisions to separate them like a split screen. The film is their cage. They are in it together, close but also divided. Freddie, his shirt and trousers torn, his face bleeding, is raging manically, smashing a toilet, hitting the bunks, banging his head on anything he can find; the Master, a little ruffled in his dress but perfectly composed, is mildly angry at Freddie’s anger, and keeps saying, as if it were a mantra: ‘I am the only one who likes you.’ Is the Master attracted by the sheer difficulty of Freddie’s case, or does he see a sort of second self in Freddie’s very unruliness? What does Freddie find in the Master that he can’t find in all his disorderly attempts to break out of his pain? In this context there is another remarkable sequence early in the movie where Freddie, as the department store photographer, suddenly takes against a client – a plump, successful-looking man who is not without a certain resemblance to the Master – and starts to use his lighting as an instrument of aggression. The scene ends in a brawl.

And then close to the end of the movie there is a scene the deserters might have stayed for if they had known it was coming. For no particular reason the Master has decided that a high-speed run on a motorbike across dried-out flatlands will be just the thing for spiritual improvement, his own and Freddie’s. They drive out into a vast, parched valley, Freddie, the Master, the Master’s daughter and his son-in-law. The Master has the first go, and the camera tracks him from the side, leaning forward into the wind, revving up his bike, as if its acceleration were endless and would take him beyond the known world. The film itself seems to have forgotten everything except this man on a bike, an ageing white-haired gent imitating a 1950s American icon – think Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Next it’s Freddie’s turn. He is to choose a point in the far distance, focus on it, go for it. Freddie takes off and the camera follows him for a bit. He is going very fast in the opposite direction to the one the Master took. Then Freddie and bike disappear over a rise in the ground, and there is just landscape. For a long time. The Master and family get into their car and go to look for Freddie. More landscape, but no Freddie. The next scene takes place some time later.

The Master never gets lost; his spiritual exercises are just work-outs, and mainly practised on other people. Freddie regularly gets lost and is perhaps never truly found, but he always shows up again, like some sort of grim self-punishing life-force. This is beginning to sound like an allegory, but that’s a problem of description. What Anderson is after, I think, resolutely seeking in his refusal to make the film go anywhere, and actually creating in the scenes I’ve described and a few others, is an intimate reconstruction of what submission and mastery, revolt and dominion, feel like when you’re caught up in them and have nowhere else to go. The result is not an understanding of this or related cases, but it does bring us as close to them as most of us will want to be.

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