A story of conflict between fiery souls
A charmer and a nut job are drawn together in a cult, loosely based on the story of L. Ron Hubbard, a Navy vet and Scientology's founder.
One man brims with confidence and knowledge. His sense of self is epic, even if he has fabricated much in his history, his achievements. When he speaks, people listen, rapt, ready to follow.
The other man rattles with dread. He drinks to excess. He can't hold a job. He is prone to violence, unable to control his urges - sexual, emotional. His face is full of rage and uncertainty.
In The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's storm-tossed and stunning - and then kind of deflating - sixth feature, these two men meet, and fall in love.
Set in the 1950s, as the United States is busy picking itself up and dusting itself off from the shock of world war, The Master describes the trajectories of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who announces himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher," and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who announces himself as a mess.
Freddie has come out of the Navy, and the battles of the Pacific theater, "a neuro-psychiatric casualty" - a term from John Huston's postwar documentary Let There Be Light, about the rehabilitation of traumatized returning veterans, that Anderson has borrowed heavily from for his film.
Another of Anderson's sources, and inspirations, has already been detailed in the media: The character of Dodd owes plenty to L. Ron Hubbard, the Navy officer, sci-fi scribe, author of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, and founder of Scientology. In the film, Dodd is the philosopher king of something called The Cause - a spiritual method that guides its practitioners through a process that helps them expunge "harmful past memories" holding them back in life.
But The Master, for all its Hubbardian trappings, is not a fictionalized account of Scientology's origins. Instead, it is, like Anderson's Boogie Nights, an exploration into makeshift families - strangers drawn together by a common bond (the porn business, a cult). And it is, like There Will Be Blood, a story of religious fervor, of the conflict of fiery souls. As Daniel Day-Lewis reigned mightily as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (and won an Oscar for his efforts), Phoenix likewise dominates the screen here - an unholy nut job opposite Hoffman's charming charlatan.
But Phoenix's performance is one of such wild, intense abandon that it is not to be believed, and this, in fact, was my problem as The Master sailed into its momentum-less second hour (the film clocks in at 2 hours, 17 minutes): The actor's channeling of Brando and Dean, Groucho and Gollum, is so unbridled, so frothing, twitchy, and skulking, that it overpowers the narrative - it becomes the narrative. Phoenix is amazing in The Master, but I'm not sure what he does as Freddie is ultimately to the film's benefit.
Yes, The Master is a love story - the pitch and woo, the to and fro, between the mentor and the madman. But it's a platonic love. Freddie hungrily pursues females, and even an anatomically correct sand sculpture of a female (he mounts "her" on the beach, ringed by his fellow sailors), while Dodd is married to Peggy (Amy Adams), a watchful, willful wife who stands in the background but is not to be taken for granted. It's the physical versus the spiritual, man's animal instincts versus his desire for transcendence, embodied by Freddie and Dodd.
Shot in the scarcely used 65mm format - the stuff of David Lean - The Master looks remarkable, luminous. The image of the Dodd ship sailing out of San Francisco Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge is heaven. And Anderson and his cinematographer (Mihai Malaimare Jr.) and production team (headed by Jack Fisk) revel in the sleek geometries, supersaturated colors, and sturdy machinery of the midcentury. The Master is a visual masterpiece.
Hoffman, who has worked with Anderson five times now, has his moment in the sun - and in the glow of well-appointed rooms, where he entertains and enlists followers to his Cause. In one loopy scene, he breaks into an old sea shanty, singing lustily as the women around him parade unclothed. In another, he wails and squawks as Peggy attends to his needs over a bathroom sink. The actor brings this larger-than-life figure to life, conveying his force, his magnetism, but also the doubts, the paranoia lurking in the back of his skull.
The Master is a work that demands attention, and it satisfies on many levels - it is a film of intelligence and ambition, teeming with ideas, assembled with fearless artistry. But as drama , finally, it loses steam - the two men, The Master's dual and dueling protagonists, have tired each other out, and that sense of exhaustion, not exaltation, shudders off the screen.