I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson. Hollywood films give you zilch to believe in, tying up their narratives with a tidy bow so you won’t leave confused and angry. Anderson refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences. What a roll call: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood.
The Master, the sixth film from the 42-year-old writer-director, affirms his position as the foremost filmmaking talent of his generation. Anderson is a rock star, the artist who knows no limits. Fierce and ferociously funny, The Master is a great movie, the best of the year so far, and a new American classic. No way is it the kind of cinematic medicine you choke down like broccoli. Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers. Anderson mixes sounds and images into a dark, dazzling music that is all his own.
As the fictional story of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, never finer), a 1950s cult leader who mentors disturbed World War II Navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of his career), The Master doesn’t flinch at taking on the business of religion. Scientology? You be the judge. The names have been changed to ward off fanatical unrest. No matter. It’s the human element that bleeds onscreen. Acting doesn’t get better or go deeper than the performances delivered by Hoffman and Phoenix.
Hoffman’s Master is the founder of a movement called the Cause, much like L. Ron Hubbard founded the church of Scientology as an outgrowth of his book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Both interrogate potential converts at length to help them relive traumatic events from their past and maybe past lives so they can clear their souls of toxicity. What Scientology calls “auditing,” the Cause calls “processing” and the outside world calls brainwashing morphs into scenes of nearly unbearable tension in the hands of Anderson, who admits to using the beginnings of Scientology as a “backdrop” for the film.
Anderson doesn’t shy away from the sins committed in the name of faith, but he also sees the attraction of finding a ready-made family in a religious movement. The search to belong and the price you pay for the privilege echo through Anderson’s work, and it’s the soul of The Master.
You can feel the ache inside Freddie from the moment Anderson intros him in the South Pacific dry-humping a babe his Navy buddies have built out of sand. Freddie’s diagnosed “nervous condition” escalates when he takes a job as a photographer in a department store, where he screws a model with scary intensity and beats the crap out of a hapless customer.
Time out to honor the astonishing look of The Master. Projected in the large-frame 70mm process Anderson favors, the film engulfs you. High praise to genius cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt), whose visual poetry is matched by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting, hypnotic score. For their enthralling work alone, you’d follow The Master anywhere.
Freddie stows away on the yacht carrying the Master to New York and featuring the shipboard wedding of Dodd’s daughter Susan (Jillian Bell). Dodd’s wife, Peggy (a quietly devastating Amy Adams), sniffs trouble from the moment she eyeballs creepy Freddie. Dodd (rhymes with God) sees the danger too, but he likes the cocktails Freddie whips up with potentially lethal paint thinner. He also rises to the challenge that boozy, mercurial, violence-prone Freddie presents as a convert.
Hoffman can lift his resonant voice to command attention or lower it to a velvet whisper, both equally mesmerizing. But it’s what the guru tries to conceal – his secret smile, his sudden wrath, the connection he feels with Freddie’s feral heart – that make his portrayal monumental. Hoffman excelled in four of Anderson’s previous films, but his tour de force here as a do-gooder-turned-silky-charlatan tops them all.
Phoenix completes this out-of-the-box love story by embodying Freddie as a raw, exposed nerve. The son of an institutionalized mother, Freddie forms a relationship with Dodd that seesaws from devotion to rabid doubt. He has the same reactions to the much younger girl (Madisen Beaty) he left behind. Then there are Freddie’s twisted sexual fantasies, notably Dodd dancing among naked female disciples. Freddie freaks out when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) casually mentions that Dad is “making all this up as he goes along.” His animal-like breakdown in a jail cell makes Robert De Niro’s raging bull seem mildly miffed. Phoenix wears the role like a second skin; he’s a volcano in full eruption. You can’t take your eyes off him.
The Master moves into its final phase when Dodd, like Hubbard, shifts his operation to the English countryside. He phones an invitation to the wayward Freddie, a last chance to align the prodigal son with the Cause. “He’s past help,” Peggy sternly tells her husband. Adams deserves serious award attention for the subtle authority she brings to this so-called dutiful wife. As for the startling intimacy when Dodd, alone with Freddie, sings sweetly, “I’d love to get you/On a slow boat to China/All to myself alone” – yikes!
In its intricate dance of loyalty and betrayal, The Master stays seductively enigmatic. Is Freddie past help? Anderson proves allergic to glib answers. But he makes certain we see ourselves in the way Freddie is drawn to and repelled by institutions (God, country, love, money) that demand absolute allegiance. The emotional damage we do to appease loneliness proves a bigger theme than exposing the evils of cults. Yet the film is flush with an Anderson kind of hope. What he celebrates about humanity in The Master is an essence that’s untamable. The description sure as hell fits Anderson and his powder keg of a movie.