Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a disturbing experience in ways that matter. It shakes us up not by bolting us out of our seats with cheap frights, but by drawing us into a psychological and emotional maelstrom. It takes its own sweet time doing so. So many directors these days, especially American directors, don’t have the patience to develop a scene, a mood. It’s as if their film was simply a feature-length trailer for itself. To its credit, no one will ever accuse “The Master” of coming across that way.
In his first movie since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson focuses once again on the dynamics of mania and isolation and loneliness, embodied here by two men, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who has emerged shattered from World War II, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic guru whose self-created philosophy "The Cause" attempts to restore its adherents to a primal state of “perfection.”
Freddie is a lost soul from the start, and it’s clear he was this way long before the war. Alcoholic, sex-obsessed, his face most often contorted into a grimace of fury and despair, Freddie, without realizing it, is looking for succor. He finds it when, on a March night in 1950, he stows away on a yacht commandeered by Dodd on its way to New York from San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. Freddie’s homemade hooch recipe is what initially draws Dodd in, but what really intrigues "The Master," as he is called by his followers, is the prospect of recombining this broken man. Freddie is a test-case for The Cause, which is why, even when Dodd’s inner circle, including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), wants to eject him, Dodd refuses to do so.
It’s not so much that Dodd has compassion for Freddie. It’s more like he needs Freddie to validate his own pretentions of perfection. What becomes clear as “The Master” wends its way through the lives of these men is that they validate each other. An intense, creepy symbiosis is at work here.
The rumors about this film during production was that it centered on the Church of Scientology, with Dodd standing in for L. Ron Hubbard. While there are certainly parallels between his teachings and The Cause, “The Master” is not a hatchet job. It has power far beyond any purported parallelisms with Scientology.
One of the film’s many intriguing aspects is that it is deliberately unclear just how much of his philosophy Dodd actually believes. (Peggy is probably The Cause’s truest believer.) Clearly he’s making it up as he goes along, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a con artist. It’s also never clear to what extent Freddie buys into The Cause. He needs to channel his rage, and Dodd provides an authenticating remedy, at least for a time. Freddie becomes not only a disciple but also an enforcer, beating up, with Dodd’s tacit approval, anyone who dares debunk Dodd’s teachings. Anderson contrasts these two men as (broken) mirror images. Freddie’s clenched, inchoate instabilities may seem far removed from Dodd’s glib bonhomie, but there are moments when Dodd, put on the defensive by naysyers, suddenly snaps, and we can see the deep psychological linkages between the master and pupil.
The performances by Phoenix and Hoffman are studies in contrast. Phoenix carries himself with a jagged, lurching, simianlike grace while Hoffman gives Dodd a calm deliberateness. Both actors have rarely been better in the movies. The real Master class here is about acting – and that includes just about everybody else in the film, especially Adams, whose twinkly girl-next-door quality is used here to fine subversive effect.
“The Master” has its share of longueurs, particularly in its last half hour or so, and a couple of fantasy sequences are more confusing than enlightening. But Anderson, although he provides ample back story to the characters, especially Freddie, doesn’t make the mistake of trying to “explain” these people. He recognizes (unlike Dodd) that the mysteries of personality are ultimately not quantifiable. This is why he plays his scenes out with such slow stealthiness. He wants to give the complexity of experience its due. Grade: A (Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.)