09/10/2012 07:45 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

Martin Scorsese makes movies that seem fueled by the adrenaline of passion. Terrence Malick's films seem to float on the evanescence of sense memory.

And Paul Thomas Anderson? Given the evidence of The Master and his last film, There Will Be Blood, I'd offer this: Anderson seems bent on making movies that challenge the viewer to figure out what he's really about.

The Master feels as though it were constructed from all the stuff cut out of another, richer movie. You get the feeling from The Master (as you did from There Will Be Blood) that, somewhere, there is a bigger, more fulfilling picture that Anderson isn't revealing. Instead, he focuses on a character tangential to the main story, showing us only his glimpses of the central action.

Not that Freddie Quell, played with clenched-jaw energy by Joaquin Phoenix, isn't an intriguing character. As Anderson imagines him, Freddie is an id on two legs, first glimpsed as a sailor in the South Pacific during World War II. When the war ends, he musters out to a mental hospital, then eventually shifts to civilian life, working as a department-store portrait photographer.

But he's got a drinking problem -- and not just that he drinks too much. He's like a mad-chemist mixologist, blending everything from paint thinner to photographic chemicals with actual liquor, tossing in some sugar to mitigate the taste, straining it all through a baguette (as though that will filter out the poison).

Still, while the movie treats his drinking as an issue, it never pauses to consider the toxins he's ingesting. And it never questions whether his stooped posture, hair-trigger temper, violent impulses -- or the weird, Dick Cheney-ish, side-of-the-mouth speaking style Phoenix affects -- might be the result of drinking industrial-strength chemicals. (At one point, he's seen guzzling propellant straight out of a torpedo amidships of his battle cruiser.)

After putting one of his pals close to death with just such a concoction, Freddie runs away -- then stows away on a boat headed from San Francisco to New York. The boat is in the care of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a writer and philosopher whose book, The Cause, has earned him the sobriquet "The Master" among his followers (though the boat itself apparently belongs to one of his benefactors).

His acolytes believe that Dodd's theories -- about past lives impinging on present ones -- and his hypnotic methods (which he calls "applications") could end fear, cure disease and save the world, if only people will listen.

So when Freddie joins his entourage, it's Charles Bukowski meets L. Ron Hubbard. Freddie obviously is a tortured soul, plagued by memories of a young girl he loved before the war but never returned to -- and also by his drinking, what he's drinking and his apparently constant state of sexual arousal. He seems like conversion-bait, ripe for reeducation by a magnetic figure like Dodd.

This review continues on my website.