The Master offers none of the awesome, convulsive ”I’m finished” climax of There Will Be Blood. Neither Lancaster Dodd, the crackpot-charismatic Pied Piper of self-actualization played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, nor Freddie Quell, the damaged, sozzled animal of a man played by Joaquin Phoenix, reach a definitive rock bottom in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest portrait of masculinity in extremis. Despite early publicity that may have primed a lip-smacking audience to expect a provocation that would incite Tom Cruise to storm the theaters, the movie isn’t a daring taunt to Scientology. If bits and pieces of Dodd’s fly-by-night pseudo-psychological movement — he calls it The Cause — mimic aspects of the organization invented by L. Ron Hubbard, those similarities mean less and less as Anderson burrows deeper and deeper into the human mysteries of Dodd and Quell. For that matter, the movie may not even be fully comprehensible on first viewing, the bigger patterns in the narrative and the rhythms of the filmmaking revealing themselves more fully and clearly only with a return visit. Even then The Master is enigmatic.
It’s also one of the great movies of the year — an ambitious, challenging, and creatively hot-blooded but cool toned project that picks seriously at knotty ideas about American personality, success, rootlessness, master-disciple dynamics, and father-son mutually assured destruction. Played by Hoffman with outwardly placid, inwardly volcanic force, Dodd may be the master alluded to in the title. But he’s nothing as an all-American guru and salesman of salvation/bunk without his unholy mess of a disciple by his side. Phoenix inhabits the role with a ferocious urgency, his whole body twisted in painful lack of self-knowledge. He’s great, and he’s frightening.
We first meet Quell in the Navy during WW II, the monstrosity of war doing its part to warp what was already a soul in torment, eroded by drink, the shame of an institutionalized mother, and lusts that have him desperately mounting a giant woman-shaped mound of sand on a beach in the South Pacific. Later, in post-war America, Quell drifts from job to job, confusion to confusion, fortifying himself with home-brewed hooch before being saved (or is it hypnotized?) by an actual vision of loveliness: a boat with twinkling lights, moored dockside, populated with vibrant specimens of human contentment, led in their good fortune by an ebullient Lancaster Dodd.
Before long, with demons temporarily defanged by the solemnly named ”Processing” that Dodd performs on his new follower, Quell becomes a fervent acolyte, albeit one ready to beat the living crap out of any who would cross his leader. Still, monsters hound him. Still, Dodd’s grandiose theories (he believes that everyone can trace his or past lives back for trillions, yes trillions of years), his seat-of-the-pants pronouncements, and his taste for boisterous entertainments hint at mania within. Quell has no language for response when Dodd’s grown son (Jesse Plemons) mentions, calmly, that his father is making it all up as he goes along. Meanwhile, Dodd’s pregnant, demure-looking wife (Amy Adams, steel beneath the smiles) shields her own weapons of terrifying will.
The Master becomes more elusive, both in the narrative and in Anderson’s visual style, as the story moves along and Dodd-ness blurs with Quell-ness, the two men intertwined in their needs. Reality bumps up against dream state, too, in scenes that lurch into a desert, a movie theater, and at one point into Quell’s pathetic visit back to hometown Massachusetts to look up the Girl Who Got Away while he was off being a soldier. Anderson works here in rare, gorgeous 65 mm cinematography by Frances Ford Coppola’s favorite director of photography Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (This is Anderson’s first project filmed without his regular master DP Roger Elswit.) And the images are intertwined with another ear-bending score from There Will Be Blood composer Jonny Greenwood. The cubism of the concluding third of the picture allows a disoriented viewer to consider this singular movie not only as a character portrait, but also as a photographic travel diary, from the days before Instagram, by an important artist following the itinerary of Americans seeking salvation and prosperity when an exterior world war was over but interior psychological battles raged. A