Director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talented and uncompromising directors working today. The last time he descended from cinematic Valhalla he presented us mere mortals with the modern masterpiece “There Will Be Blood.”
Now he’s back with “The Master” and while the movie doesn’t quite live up to Anderson’s Odin-like standards, it still stands out as one of the most provocative and temperamental films of the year.
In the buildup to the movie’s release, “The Master” was billed as Anderson’s film about Scientology that wasn’t really about Scientology. Most assumed that the writer/director’s caginess about his subject had to do with the religion’s highly litigious reputation.
As it turns out, the movie really isn’t about Scientology; Anderson has much bigger fish to fry. Oh, sure, the movie is set in the early l950s, one of the central characters, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), shares a biography similar to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and you could draw a ton of parallels between the precepts of Dodd’s movement, “The Cause,” and Scientology; but this only serves as a backdrop for “The Master.”
What the movie is really about is Freddie Quell (played with breakneck abandon by Joaquin Phoenix), a desperate and battered man who returns home from World War II to a life with no prospects.
Freddie is a drunk, a sex addict and quite possibly psychotic. He can’t hold down a steady job and finds himself on the run when his homemade brew poisons a man (One of Freddie’s favorite mixers is paint thinner).
Freddie stows away on a ship commanded by Dodd and filled with Dodd’s immediate and extended family of followers.
Dodd immediately takes a shine to Freddie and sees within this troubled man all of his own inner demons personified. Freddie proceeds to creep everyone out, including Dodd’s dutiful and forceful wife Peggy (Amy Adams).
But no matter how unhinged Freddie becomes, Dodd stands by his man, devoted to the belief that his methods can help Freddie. As for Freddie, he’s just happy someone is showing an interest in him and willfully submits to Dodd’s repeated and intense attempts at “processing.”
The main conflict in “The Master” comes from Dodd’s slow realization that while his “discoveries” are enough to dupe sycophants and bored socialites, they have no hope of helping someone as truly broken as Freddie.
While I’ve heaped a lot of goofy praise on Anderson, he’s really only fulfilled the promise of his tremendous talent three times in his sparse career with “There Will Be Blood,” his breakout film “Boogie Nights” and now with “The Master.”
In his other movies, like “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love,” Anderson often loses sight of the forest while lingering on all his impeccably crafted and tailored trees.
“The Master” brushes up against this fatal flaw, but rises out of a thematically dense sea of identity issues and family dynamics thanks to the strength of a handful of tremendously powerful scenes.
The acting performances by Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams are all powerhouse turns and the movie thunders to life whenever any two of them share a scene together. They are all locks for Oscar nominations.
Also look for “The Master” to score some down-the-ballot Academy Award nods in categories like cinematography (Mihai Malaimare Jr. delivers a beautifully rendered study of interiors and faces.) and score. (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood serves up disjointed, atonal chords that perfectly fit the mood.)
This is a challenging movie to be sure and is hampered by the complete lack of likeable or relatable characters. But if you don’t mind wrestling with some big ideas, then roll up your sleeves and dive into “The Master.” It’s well worth it.
“The Master” is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.