“I need to get the lighting right,” mutters the man with the camera in “The Master,” one of the few truly vital and unruly American films in recent years.
The man is Freddie Quell, a World War II Navy veteran suffering from what has been diagnosed as a nervous condition. He's a long way, adjustment-wise, from the disenchanted returning vet author James Jones wrote about in “Some Came Running,” played by Frank Sinatra in the movie.
Freddie's far gone: An alcoholic, a brawler, and a survivor of a harsh and unloving childhood, as well as untold horrors of combat, he is pulled into one scrape and out another, sneering as if an invisible fishhook had gotten snagged in his upper lip. By the time he lands a job as a department store portrait photographer in 1950, he feels no less at sea than he did in the South Pacific.
Crouching behind his tripod, Freddie is plagued by a nasty hangover and last night's flop date with a co-worker. His mood is not good. Freddie takes an instant dislike to his latest customer. He keeps inching his floor lamp closer to his adversary's sweating face. "It's too hot," the customer says. Freddie pushes the lamp an inch or two closer. It's a bizarrely funny scene, and Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie handles it with a crazed sense of calm, even as fists begin to fly and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's camera careens all over the store, in exquisite unbroken tracking shots. Anderson, like Freddie, is just trying to get the lighting right while chasing the lost soul at the center of the story.
Eventually Freddie finds himself in the company of a fellow misfit. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who shared the best actor prize for "The Master" with Phoenix earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival, plays Lancaster Dodd, the founder of "The Cause," a Scientology-like religion (for the record, the word "cult" is uttered only once in "The Master"). The Cause is built upon an elaborate combination of grief therapy, past-lives examination, theoretical time-travel, birth-trauma hypnosis and the belief that all true believers can, in Dodd's words, return to humankind's "inherent state of perfect."
No Anderson film will ever reach that state. Anderson has never placed neatness ahead of the happy accident or the sidewinding discovery. "The Master" is brilliantly, wholly itself for a little more than half of its 137 minutes. Then it chases its own tail a bit and settles for being merely a fascinating metaphoric father-son relationship reaching endgame. It may not all "work," but most of it's remarkable. And the best of it matches or exceeds writer-director Anderson's previous film, "There Will Be Blood" (2007), which in many ways was the film, the portrait of American dreamers and exploiters, of its decade.
Much has been written about "The Master" and its oddness, and one of the oddest of its personality traits is how straightforward it is on one level, and how challenging on others. One evening, after his toxic homemade moonshine (whose ingredients include paint thinner) leads to a migrant worker's death, Freddie is scuttling down by the waterfront in San Francisco. A wedding party yacht, lit up like a dream of elegance and "belonging," beckons to him. Freddie hops on board and stows away. This is the boat whose self-proclaimed commander is Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-meets-Charles Foster Kane self-made man portrayed by Hoffman with sly wit and an ever-shifting degree of sincerity.
Already, the shot in "The Master" of the yacht chugging out into the night, under the Golden Gate Bridge, has become famous -- it's that beautiful symbol of one door closing and another opening. Earlier, when Freddie bursts through a shadowy migrant workers' tent somewhere near Salinas into the early morning light, Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare capture brilliantly an image of a wounded, terrified animal (Freddie, that is) trying to outrun his own demons. Much of "The Master" was photographed using ancient 65 millimeter cameras, lending both widescreen scope and a patina of nostalgia that may or may not be telling the truth about what we're seeing. Like "There Will Be Blood," this is an intimate, even claustrophobic epic, largely composed of tense two-person confrontations and power struggles. Amy Adams, her innate sweetness hidden behind a delicate will of iron, is Dodd’s latest wife, Peggy, who sees in their newfound “guinea pig” Freddie both an acolyte and a storm cloud.
In step with Anderson’s conception of Freddie, a hairy ape straight out of Eugene O’Neill, Phoenix’s performance begins a long way out on the branch and keeps going further. He’s a sexual being, but a mess, and an adolescent. His first words on the beach, in the final days of WWII, concern the proper method of ridding oneself of sexually transmitted crabs, and we see him simulating intercourse with a nude woman made of sand. At times Phoenix’s Freddie hearkens back to Montgomery Clift in “From Here to Eternity,” to name another James Jones tale. Only here the alienation is a hundredfold.
There are moments, and whole scenes, such as Freddie and Dodd side by side in jail cells, when Phoenix goes nuts in ways that leave characterization in the dust. For better or worse the actor can be all Method in his madness, and not enough selectivity. Anderson sometimes allows scenes to play out just past their expiration date. As the story of “The Master” moves to Arizona and elsewhere, the momentum sputters. But scenes such as the first so-called “processing,” when Dodd questions Freddie on board the ship ("Do your past failures in life bother you? Do you get muscle spasms for no reason?”), rivet the attention. They’re as close to cult indoctrination as many of us would like to come, but they work, searingly, as minutely observed drama. Freddie needs saving, an arrow pointing him in some direction. The Cause is that arrow, and “The Master” puts you in extremely close quarters, often in paradoxically open-air settings, with seekers who may be full of it. Or may not.
Jonny Greenwood’s agitated, agitating score, Jack Fisk’s production design, Anderson’s self-effacingly astounding camera sense all add up to an evocation of mid-20th-century America that is spot-on in its surface detail. Yet we sense an alien land underneath those surfaces. (Sometimes Greenwood overdoes that part.) In “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” his sprawling ensemble films, Anderson gave us Southern California in all its everyday peculiarity, from the porn industry to biblically sprung frogs from the sky. All things are possible in his movies, but the fix is in; the ones in the positions of power likely got there in ways that generally make for a good story. Anderson’s a sardonic optimist. And he loves choreographing interactions between actors and the camera, which makes him practically alone in American movies.
“The Master” doesn’t explicitly lay out how a religion, or a cult, or a belief along the lines of Scientology manages to draw a crowd. Rather, the movie makes the “how” clear and, at its best, unforgettable, by showing, not telling. The people on screen are not conventionally sympathetic, or heroic, or villainous, but interesting. (One of the sharpest exchanges, between Hoffman’s sputtering Dodd and Christopher Evan Welch's undermining skeptic, is breathtakingly well-sustained.) The key to the film, I think, is that Freddie and Dodd like each other and, in fact, love each other (though the epilogue tips things in too obvious a direction for Dodd). Anderson fixes on an extremely sad, messed-up guy, Freddie, and then makes his path as rich and strange as cinematically possible. In “The Master,” we’re often left gasping for air, as in the scene when Freddie is required not to blink for a painfully long stretch of his processing. Or because of the sheer beauty of some of the compositions. Warts, wanderings, reiterations and all, this is a film destined to be processed in many different ways. And hallelujah to that.
'The Master' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and language)
Running time: 2:17