Helpful because it gives a sort of context to the grandiose but baffling character inhabited with his customary aplomb by Philip Seymour Hoffman; unhelpful because it implies a narrative rigour and biographical focus that the film never comes close to achieving.
Nor, in fairness, does it intend to, because Anderson's intentions here are altogether grander. He may, and I am only guessing, be exploring the American addiction to religion and bombastic messiahs in the same way as he so successfully eviscerated American capitalism in There Will Be Blood.
Anderson could never be accused of thinking small, and The Master is perhaps his most ambitious project yet.
In gloriously photographed scenes, we watch Freddie at work aboard a US battleship, fixing engines but finding time to syphon fuel from a tank to turn into homemade moonshine. He's an alcoholic, but also a sexual obsessive: when some of his shipmates build a model in sand of a voluptuous woman on a Pacific beach, Freddie attempts to hump it.
Though we never discover the source of Freddie's pain, his every fibre oozes dysfunction. Played by a gaunt and nervy Phoenix, he shuffles through the postwar world in search of acceptance, but has a nasty habit of picking fights where none exist.
He gets a job in a New York department store as a portrait photographer, a sequence enlivened by clever pastiches of all-American family photos. But he's sacked after getting in a fistfight with a customer and winds up working on a California cabbage farm, where his illicit hooch may be responsible for the death of a co-worker.
On the run and at the end of his tether, he prowls the San Francisco docks and spots a small cruise liner that's about to cast off. On the foredecks a prosperous man in a tailored suit is holding forth at the centre of a glamorous party.
On a whim, and in a beautifully choreographed and purringly fluent single continuous shot, Freddie leaps aboard and embarks on what will prove the most significant journey of his life.
The prosperous man is Lancaster Dodd ( Hoffman), an almost preposterously self-assured guru who's the leader of a fast-rising quasi-spiritual cult called 'The Cause'.
They believe we've all lived countless past lives that inform our current ones and can be re-experienced in the search for oneness and peace.
The troubled relationship between Dodd and Freddie forms The Master's spine. Freddie is volatile and violent, and at times it seems that Dodd is using him as a kind of battering ram against his enemies.
But Dodd also seems genuinely fond of Freddie, and through him we are given an insight into the strange mechanics of Dodd's life.
Some of the exchanges between Phoenix and Hoffman are magnificently orchestrated and acted, in particular their first encounter and a powerful scene in a jail cell. And The Master itself, lovingly photographed in 65mm, is a bravura visual treat, full of unforgettable moments.
They remain, though, merely moments, because for all is aesthetic and visual accomplishments The Master is for me a muddled and fundamentally flawed motion picture that promises much but delivers little, and flatters to deceive.
The characters of Dodd and Freddie, and the huge performances that accompany them, ultimately obliterate rather than complement each other. And while the film will have its passionate advocates, it fatally lacks the focus and clarity of, for instance, There Will Be Blood.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern