With every new film, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre grows increasingly elusive. It was 1997 when the wunderkind’s sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, established him as a director of nearly boundless potential. Then came Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, each subsequent picture displaying a new level of confidence, and with it, abstraction. Having already proven himself one of the finest contemporary American filmmakers, the man must feel less and less obligated to coddle to tenderfoot audiences. His newest opus, a period piece curio called The Master, is less diluted than ever—it’s a pure Anderson vision quest, as beautiful and awe-inspiring and frustratingly opaque as a cathedral stain-glass mosaic designed by experimental animator Len Lye.
It’s been widely publicized that Anderson’s film, about a fictional religion called The Cause, headed by charlatan/prophet Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is based on the Scientologist movement of the 1950’s, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Set in the years following WWII, The Master is less interested in attacking its subject with razor sharp exactitude than it is in exploring how all cults—and indeed all religions—have the power to embrace human souls and to ostracize them. An extension of Anderson’s perpetual theme of families created and destroyed, The Master probes how one lone-wolf—Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a disgruntled veteran—made his way into the calm baptismal waters of Dodd’s universe, and proceeded to stir up a turbulent sea.
The film begins while Freddie’s still a Naval serviceman. On the Pacific Front, he and his fellow sailors construct a sand-sculpture of a naked woman on the beach then proceed to violate it. Later, as Truman announces VJ-Day over the radio, they sneak below decks of their battleship to drink the jet fuel out of unused torpedoes. After the war, Freddie goes from job to job without much luck; he’s a drunk and a brute. For a while, he does family portraits at a department store, and his (Anderson’s) tableaux hint at the plastic familial ideal of postwar America, where his rosy cheeked, shiny haired subjects look like wax dolls, mannequins of the American Dream. Afterwards, he picks cabbage with migrant laborers, before one of his rotgut concoctions poisons a worker and gets him chased off. Called instinctively back to the sea, Freddie stumbles upon The Cause. Their leader, the aforementioned Dodd, is hosting a wedding party cruise for his daughter. Out of sympathy, fascination or some ineffable romantic affection, Dodd latches onto Freddie, gives him a home, a job, and begins the “process” of making him into a full-fledged follower.
In contrast to last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, The Master is not really about brainwashing at all. Rather than portraying how strong voices influence impressionable minds, the story examines how one group failed to effect a man who’s so unreachable his pathology prevents him from being molded by even the most toxic subconscious forces. Dodd’s doctrines posit that men have a spiritual supremacy over the animal kingdom, but Freddie’s animalistic urges—sex, violence, and substance abuse—make him a beast, the proverbial snake among the saved. Dodd seeks to uncover the man. Dodd’s watchful wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), is suspicious and grows critical of Freddie’s boorish behavior. Soon Dodd releases his latest volume of biblical verses, and the religion grows exponentially, but with every new member, Freddie’s position in the group deteriorates a little more, like a sandcastle in rising tides.
The film is rife with hidden messages, none of which are easily ascertained. The film’s title, for instance, holds several important meanings. Dodd himself is christened with the moniker, of course, but the true “masters” of the film are all the internal and external impetuses that rule our lives. Freddie’s a slave to his alcoholism, his post-traumatic stress disorder, and his desire for romantic love that can never be fully satisfied. Anderson presents a world governed by religious devotion, by societal values, and by cultural expectations that are as suffocating as they are ostensibly liberating. Even Dodd himself, the film’s eponymous superior, shows his weakness in one particularly disturbing scene, in which Peggy uses sex to manipulate and control him, her hand literally maneuvering him like a puppet master’s. Freddie’s canine features—his scrunched face, crooked wolf-like grin, unintelligible growl, hunched gait, spindly frame, and staggered movements—allow him to be easily subjugated. In one scene, the two men roll around in the grass, playing; they call to mind a loyal pup gamboling with his master.
Despite this fellowship, Freddie rejects enlightenment. Somehow his animalism keeps him from being turned into a lobotomized disciple, but it’s that same trait that isolates him, melancholically, as if the soul that needs to be subdued was taken by the war. And Anderson lets these ideas play out with minimal cinematic braggadocio. Despite a few virtuosic camera ballets—including one stunning tracking shot that follows a model through the floor of a department store in hypnotic circles—Anderson favors intimate single-shots of the actor’s faces, allowing his brilliant central three to paint the screen with captivating character nuances. Hoffman is a force of nature, and Adams is no mere cipher, no passive housewife, but a fiercely opinionated believer, as eerily unctuous as she is lovely. Joaquin Phoenix gives a bravura exhibition. His Freddie is not just a strikingly original creation; he’s a completely physical presence. Like one of Martin Scorsese’s fascinatingly unsympathetic antiheroes, his every tick and line delivery reveals a little more about a man still at war down to his bones, struggling to find a place in the world beyond the horrors of battle.