Paul Thomas Anderson’s longtime fascination with souls in extremis achieves a teasing, richly unsettling apotheosis in “The Master.” The 1950-set story of a troubled WWII veteran drawn to and repelled by a mysterious community that strikingly resembles the Church of Scientology, the writer-director’s typically eccentric sixth feature is a sustained immersion in a series of hypnotic moods and longueurs, an imposing picture that thrillingly and sometimes maddeningly refuses to conform to expectations. Still, with its bravura technique and superbly synched turns from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Weinstein Co. release should generate robust returns and furious discussion long after its hugely anticipated Sept. 14 bow.
Pic has already been extensively sneak-previewed Stateside via surprise 70mm screenings (Anderson’s preferred projection format) before its Venice and Toronto festival premieres, a peculiar rollout pattern that befits this ever-idiosyncratic filmmaker. Neither as explosive nor as enthralling as his “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” shares with that 2007 picture an unrelenting focus on a borderline sociopath, a deeply scarred individual who craves a certain form of validation, yet proves mentally and emotionally incapable of receiving it from a community whose own motivations are thoroughly suspect.
Set to another Jonny Greenwood score that pulses, churns and jitters to its own unpredictable rhythms, the film opens with an evocation of a man literally and figuratively at sea. Idling away the last gasp of WWII somewhere in the South Pacific, Freddie Quell (Phoenix) emerges from the experience with a drinking problem, a pronounced psychosexual fixation and a general inclination toward erratic, childlike behavior. Yet as Freddie makes a vain attempt to assimilate, it’s implied that he’s suffering less from the trauma of war than from unexplained formative demons.
Much of his backstory will be unpacked, at length, by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a strange and charismatic gentleman whom Freddie encounters when he drunkenly boards a passing yacht one March night in 1950. Bound for New York from San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal, the boat’s passengers are adherents of the Cause, an out-there philosophy that requires them to recall and expose their deepest, most troubling memories, the better to purge the mind of undesirable impulses and restore it to its inherent state of perfection. Dodd, the group’s self-styled leader, calls it “processing”; one harshly critical observer (Christopher Evan Welch) uses the less flattering terms “time-travel hypnosis therapy” and “cult.”
Although the Church of Scientology and dianetics are never directly invoked, the parallels are unmistakable, from the marked resemblance between Hoffman’s Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard (a direct inspiration, as Anderson noted at the Venice press conference) to the Cause’s claims, familiar from Hubbard’s writings, that its followers can be healed of serious physical ailments and might one day bring about world peace. Yet “The Master” is no mere muckraking expose; as conveyed in the film, Dodd’s teachings and insights, which he’s clearly making up as he goes along, don’t need much debunking.
Instead, the picture is structured as a minutely observed tug-of-war between a damaged, volatile individual and a movement he never quite meshes with, building to an emotional standoff of near-volcanic force and fury. Over the course of several months, Freddie tries hard to fit in, hurling himself into the increasingly elaborate and outlandish self-baring exercises prescribed by Dodd. Members of Dodd’s inner circle, chiefly his Lady Macbeth-like wife (Amy Adams, whose pertness has rarely seemed so malevolent), see this crazy drunk as a lost cause and a violent threat. Yet the group’s desire to expel Freddie is complicated by the genuine affection and curiosity that pass between him and his master, an intimacy apparent in their disquieting back-and-forth exchanges, in which Dodd’s insistent questions and Freddie’s terse replies overlap with almost contrapuntal precision.
Anderson’s scripts have long delighted in the possibilities of language, particularly in period settings, and for long stretches, the scribe seems at once intoxicated and repulsed by the florid, fanciful, seductively high-minded diction Dodd uses to win and manipulate his converts. Hoffman, in his fifth collaboration with the director, simply mesmerizes here, his speech balancing the mellifluous with the ridiculous, his smiling eyes full of wonder and possibility even as his will and words maintain a grip of unyielding authority. Monstrous and monomaniacal though Dodd may be, he’s a character to love.
By contrast, Phoenix makes Freddie a figure of helpless, inarticulate rage; with his wiry physicality, flailing movements and permanently clenched grimace, he thwarts one’s sympathy when he seems to need it the most. Even when it flashes back to his long-ago flirtation with a girl (Madisen Beaty) many years his junior, or visualizes his sexual fantasies in one surreally audacious sequence, the film refrains from going too deep inside his head. There is pathos here, but the viewer is directed less to identify with Freddie’s state than to recognize the larger social and psychological forces at work, forcing one to remain attentive all the way through the film’s cryptic, meandering and determinedly low-key final act.
Yet even when the narrative drifts into increasingly ambiguous waters, the sheer brilliance of the filmmaking holds one rapt. Shooting primarily in Hawaii and Anderson’s native California, d.p. Mihai Malaimare Jr. captures images of exceptional crispness and clarity, and Anderson stages some of his most complex and demanding sequences in lengthy single takes, the Panavision 65mm camera gliding around the action with insinuating elegance. Jack Fisk and David Crank’s production design and Mark Bridges’ costumes are unerringly, yet not distractingly, of the period, and Greenwood’s off-kilter orchestrations seem to fade in and out of the meticulously layered soundscape, adding to the sense of a world tilting ever so gradually out of whack.
Delivering little in the way of catharsis but offering an overwhelming number of things to think about, “The Master” is finally a wry but not uncompassionate study of human vulnerability and suggestibility, and of the disconnect that occurs when human behavior stubbornly resists the pull of an individual’s whims or society’s expectations. By dint of its outsider protagonist, the film leaves the viewer with a particularly perverse kind of optimism: When someone promises freedom and offers enslavement, madness may well be a better defense than sanity.