"The Master" takes some getting used to.
This is a superbly crafted film that's at times intentionally opaque, as if its creator didn't want us to see all the way into its heart of darkness.
It's a film bristling with vivid moments and unbeatable acting, but its interest is not in tidy narrative satisfactions but rather the excesses and extremes of human behavior, the interplay of troubled souls desperate to find their footing.
Its writer-director, of course, is the all-out visionary Paul Thomas Anderson, an all-in filmmaker whose previous work like "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood" explored strong and compelling personal conflicts. But none are stronger than the one here between a man completely sure of himself and another who is completely not.
The latter would be Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix at his most ferocious), a troubled, tortured World War II veteran whose contrived cockiness can't mask the torment he lives with. The intense connection he makes with Lancaster Dodd (an impeccable Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a new human potential movement who claims he's found a way to "return man to his inherent state of perfection," powerfully affects them both.
The parallels between Dodd and his movement, known as The Cause, and the real-life presences of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology are plentiful enough to have attracted considerable attention, but those looking to "The Master" to be some kind of muckraking expose are going to be disappointed.
For one thing, Anderson's script feels more like something inspired by Scientology than any kind of literal representation of the early days of the movement. For another, "The Master" is not in the expose business. Rather it is a moody, disturbing film about personality, obsession and delusion, about the will to power, the parallel need to be mastered, and what happens when those wires get irredeemably crossed.
"Rootless" is a mild word to describe Freddie Quell's life. We meet him on Guam in the closing days of World War II, a sailor getting so hellaciously drunk that simulating sex with a woman constructed out of sand seems like a hell of a good idea.
Phoenix, known for immersing himself in Oscar-nominated roles in "Gladiator" and "Walk the Line," makes Quell frighteningly believable. The way the man walks, the way he talks, the savage bursts of violence he is prone to, mark him as a traumatized individual, likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before it had a name, someone who is perennially fighting his demons for control and losing more often than not.
After making a mess of his postwar job as an in-house photographer in a department store (Jack Fisk and David Crank's production design is superb, as is Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s 65-millimeter cinematography), Quell gets into trouble because of the toxicity of the moonshine he enjoys cooking up. Then, one night in 1950, completely drunk, Quell wanders onto a yacht docked in the San Francisco Bay, passes out, and wakes up in a world he never imagined.
That world is under the control of Dodd, the master of all he surveys who in fact enjoys being called "Master" by his small group of followers. Dodd describes himself to Quell as someone who does many things — "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher" — but who above all is "a hopelessly inquisitive man."
On the yacht with his pregnant new wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), to oversee the wedding of his daughter, Dodd sizes up Quell immediately, frankly telling him "you are a scoundrel" but allowing him to stay on the boat if he promises to keep brewing the moonshine that Dodd approvingly sampled while its maker was passed out.
What fascinates Quell as well as everyone else on the boat about Master is easy to see in a confident, magnetic performance by Hoffman that owes as much to Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane as anyone else. His Dodd is a showman and an unexpectedly idiosyncratic thinker, someone with a gift for language who casually drops phrases like "leave your worries for a while, they'll be there when you get back. Your memories aren't invited."
What Dodd sees in Quell is murkier and less straightforward. Wife Peggy says "you seem to inspire something in him," and the man himself calls Quell "my guinea pig and protégé," which may be closer to the truth. If his theories and practices can work on Quell, Dodd is perhaps thinking, they can work on anyone.
The ideas behind The Cause, as we get them in bits and pieces, turn out to be a witch's brew of psychology, mind control and science fiction that involves spirits from outer space, past lives and a battle Dodd characterizes by saying, "this is something you do for billions of years or not at all." It's no wonder that Dodd's son thinks his father may be making all this up as he goes along.
The heart of "The Master" are the scenes where Dodd and Quell have at each other, especially the situations where Dodd applies psychological techniques he calls "processing" (a word Scientologists use as well) to his at-times reluctant adept. "Electricity" is a mild word for the formidable charge that passes between these two, and though it's disconcerting that the relationship between them gets murkier rather than clearer as time goes on, that is perhaps the point.
The only other recognizable names in "The Master's" strong cast are Adams, excellent as always as Dodd's tough-as-nails true-believer wife, and a fine Laura Dern as one of Master's early disciples.
It is characteristic of Anderson's rigorous directing style that all the supporting actors as well as each of the extras is not only convincingly played (Cassandra Kulukundis is the casting director) but also looks precisely as the period demands.
That dedication to immaculate filmmaking extends to all areas, including Jonny Greenwood's brooding music, Mark Bridges' costumes and the editing by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty. All have worked with Anderson and his elusive style before, and if you appreciate filmmaking at this level you are more than grateful that it's happened again.
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles