Anderson unmistakably draws inspiration from the rise of Dianetics author L. Ron Hubbard for his portrayal of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic author fronts a rising self-help movement called The Cause. Instead of present The Master as a fictionalized expose of Scientology, however, Anderson engages with more complex and elusive aspects of the American psyche at the midpoint of the 20th century.
Anderson primarily focuses on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sailor left a physical and emotional wreck at the end of World War II. Freddie’s not just an alcoholic, but a compulsive brewer of hooch from the most basic ingredients on hand, ranging from fruit to paint thinner. Discharged from the Navy despite suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (before the term was invented), Freddie rambles from one corner of post-war America to another, his attempts to take part in the workforce ending in disaster.
When the drifter stows away on a yacht loaned to Dodd, the author proves unexpectedly impressed with Freddie’s alchemy with alcohol and, more generally, his raw, animalistic nature. Dodd subjects Freddie to a series of questions called “processing,” designed to expose personal anxieties, and Freddie’s knee-jerk resistance to manipulation results in a compelling clash of personalities. Freddie ends up becoming Dodd’s hanger-on, guinea pig and defender willing to use violence.
The Master hinges on the attraction and repulsion of introverted Freddie and extroverted Dodd, resulting in a thrilling duet between the actors. Phoenix mumbles from corner of his mouth as if he’s trying to keep some innate part of himself concealed, and moves with a painfully unnatural-looking posture. He frequently explodes with tantrums, at one point nearly destroying a prison cell. Hoffman makes Dodd a natural showman who exudes a largesse that seems to say “I’m awesome, and you’re lucky to be in my presence, making you awesome, too.” But when he’s not breaking into songs or speeches, Dodd reveals a cagey quality, as if he’s unwilling to explore his own dark side. Watching The Master is like seeing Robert De Niro’s Raging Bull handcuffed to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
A more conventional movie would follow this story in one of two directions. Freddie could be a lost soul who craves belonging and self-knowledge, even through the help of a possible charlatan. But he could also be an all-American rebellious spirit who refuses to knuckle under to authority, particularly when pressured by a group that prizes personal loyalty over scientific rigor. Anderson feints in both direction, but to his credit refuses to take either approach in a simplistic, overly determined way. The Master’s story unfolds in a wholly original, unpredictable way, but makes frustrating viewing if you expect obvious conflicts and neat resolutions. Clear, it ain't.
Compared to Anderson’s sprawling early films Boogie Nights and Magnolia, The Master builds on the formalism and austerity of There Will Be Blood. You could Photoshop out the lead actors, and the rich cinematography, urgent camera movement and placement of extras would serve as a tone poem about the tensions between World War II and America’s post-war boom. One breathtaking shot follows the yacht as it motors under the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk, and we can see a dancing crowd on the upper deck, and a quiet couple on the lower one, like figures in an Edward Hopper painting.
Amy Adams plays Dodd’s fiercely protective wife, but the actress’s girl-next-door appeal hinders the role’s dark intensity. Her presence adds another level of potential implication to a film that demands multiple viewings to fully unpack and appreciate. A lock for Academy Award consideration, The Master will resist mainstream appeal even as it draws a fervent following. It’s destined to be a cult film in more ways than one.
The Master. 4 stars. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rated R. Opens Fri., Sep. 21. At area theaters.
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