Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is masterful for sure, as well as enthralling and perplexing. But an argument that will endure is whether it adds up to the sum of its many brilliant parts.
The writer-director's first film since 2007's There Will Be Blood is an unsettling character study of a disturbed Navy veteran, a selective portrait of post-World War II America and a cinephile's sandbox. One thing it is not is an exposé of Scientology, though nearly all of the characters are involved in a controversial cult. Its commercial career looks to follow the usual course of the director's work, with his intense fan base and mostly strong critical support making Master a must-see for serious audiences and wider acceptance dependent on the extent of awards recognition. Even so, this will be a tougher sell to Joe Public than Anderson's other work.
In a film overflowing with qualities but also brimming with puzzlements, two things stand out: the extraordinary command of cinematic technique, which alone is nearly enough to keep a connoisseur on the edge of their seat the entire time, and the tremendous portrayals by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman of entirely antithetical men, one an unlettered drifter without a clue, the other an intellectual charlatan who claims to have all the answers.
The first 20 minutes are spent observing sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix). Appearing to be sex-obsessed and a bit loony as he pleasures himself on a Pacific beach, he is diagnosed with a "nervous condition" upon his discharge at the end of WWII, whereupon he turns up as a photographer at a snazzy department store. He's got enough charm to seduce a beautiful model he's shooting but is so hair-triggered that he assaults a male customer and is fired. This entire interlude is one of the most beautifully directed scenes anyone could ever wish to see.
Freddie scrams to San Francisco and sneaks aboard a ship on which a party hosted by the dazzlingly articulate Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) is under way. Dodd recognizes at once that Freddie is a scoundrel but welcomes the stowaway nonetheless, no doubt for the challenge of curing him as setting people straight is the goal of his quasi-mystical organization, The Cause. "You're aberrated," declares Dodd. "You've strayed from the proper path."
Thus follow intense "recording" sessions in which Dodd interrogates his subject to flush out truthful answers on the most sensitive of topics. Presumably this is akin to Scientology's auditing process, and in dramatic terms the scenes are terrifically effective, both for the visceral impact of the exchanges and their revelatory nature. Later, Dodd expounds on his belief that man is not an animal and that, with proper training, people can be purged of "all negative impulses."
The latter premise is sorely tested by Freddie, who's like an obedient puppy with rabies. When Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons) confides of his father that, "He's making all this up as he goes along," Freddie loses it, attacking cops in a maniacal rage and prompting Dodd's ever-watchful wife (Amy Adams) to warn, "He'll be our undoing."
A convincing dynamic leaks from the film once the two men see each other for what they are: Freddie realizes Dodd is a fraud, and the older man understands the younger can only hurt The Cause; as constructed, that should be the end of things. But the film moves forward, to not-uninteresting but less persuasive effect, toward a finale that seems unworthy of so much that has come before.
As for the Scientology angle, certain aspects of The Cause invite comparison to L. Ron Hubbard and his creation: the processing sequences, the living on a boat, the allusions to time travel and so on. Still, if Anderson really had wanted to mine the early days of Scientology, he could have had a much juicier film, what with the sexual shenanigans, legal scrapes and boldface lies that are part of the organization's past. If anything, Scientology gets off easy.
Phoenix has never shown anything near the power, mystery and dangerous unpredictability he serves up as the emotionally inchoate Freddie. Just being around this guy will cause unease in many viewers, so it's impressive that he and Anderson have been able to build such a complex work around such a derelict figure.
By contrast, Lancaster Dodd, no matter how dedicated to flimflammery, is at heart generous. He likes to share his house, hospitality and beliefs, even if he is a philosophical snake oil salesman. Hoffman is brilliantly focused, deliciously enunciating Dodd's many theories, at all times believable as a man capable of inspiring a faithful following.
In the one female part of any size, Adams at first appears restricted by the subordinate status of obedient wife. But she notices everything and always steps in when needed with crucial contributions (including a most unexpected stress-reducing husband-wife sex interlude). Adams underplays it all to strong effect.
Visually, Master is bracing, resplendent, almost hypersensitizing thanks to the 70mm celluloid used so skillfully by Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (This marks the first time the director has worked with a director of photography other than Robert Elswit, who was busy with The Bourne Legacy.) As the film is not an epic in the usual sense of grand locations and does not employ a widescreen format, it's a bit surprising that it is the first American dramatic feature shot in its virtual entirety in 70mm since Ron Howard's Far and Away in 1992. Because of the great format's essential disuse, The Weinstein Co. has been finding it difficult to secure properly equipped cinemas to present Master to the director's specifications.
Jonny Greenwood, whose score for There Will Be Blood proved so effective, provides eerie music with a life of its own that Anderson allows to whoosh through scenes in an unorthodox way. Like everything else about the film, it is highly particular and bracingly outside the norm.
Opens: Sept. 21 (The Weinstein Co.)
Venues: Venice, Toronto film festivals Rated R, 137 minutes