Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is masterful for sure, as well as enthralling and perplexing. But an argument that will endure for as long as people feel like seeing and talking about the film is whether it adds up to the sum of its many brilliant parts.
The writer-director's first film in five years is an unsettling character study of a disturbed and violent Navy veteran, a selective portrait of post-World War II America, a showcase for two superb performances and a cinephile's sandbox. One thing it is not is a dissection or exposé of Scientology, even though nearly all the characters are involved in a controversial cult. Even the prerelease phase of the film's life has been unusual, with The Weinstein Company moving up the release date to Sept. 21, some surprise screenings having sprung up around the country prior to its official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and even the cinemas it will play in having become the subject of much discussion due to the 70mm format in which much of the film was shot. Its commercial career looks to follow the usual course of the director's work, with his intense fan base and mostly, if not unanimously, strong critical support making the film a must-see for serious audiences and wider acceptance dependent upon the extent of awards recognition. Even so, this will be a tougher sell to Joe Public than Anderson's other work.
In a work overflowing with qualities but also brimming with puzzlements, two things stand out: the extraordinary command of cinematic technique, which alone is nearly enough to keep a connoisseur on the edge of his seat the entire time, and the tremendous portrayals by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman of two entirely antithetical men, one an unlettered drifter without a clue, the other an intellectual charlatan who claims to have all the answers. They become greatly important to one another and yet, in the end, have an oddly negligible mutual effect. The majesterial style, eerie mood and forbidding central characters echo Anderson's last film, There Will Be Blood, a kinship furthered by another bold and discordant score by Jonny Greenwood.
The first 20 minutes are spent observing the aberrant, unpredictable behavior of sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix). Appearing to be sex-obsessed and a bit loony as he cavorts and pleasures himself on a Pacific beach, Freddie is diagnosed with a “nervous condition” upon his discharge at the end of WWII, whereupon he turns up as a photographer at a snazzy department store. He's got enough charm to seduce the beautiful model he's shooting, but is so hair-triggered that he assaults a male customer and is fired. This entire interlude at the store is one of the most beautifully directed scenes anyone could ever wish to see.
But right off the bat, Phoenix is profoundly unnerving, so deeply into this unbalanced character does he seem to be. In addition to using his eyes in ways that can be both furtive and challenging, the actor screws his mouth back to one side, combining with his upper-lip scar to odd effect, and hunches over insecurely to provide a physical presence of surpassing weirdness.
One thing Freddie is known for is a knockout cocktail of uncertain provenance. But when, at his next job in the fields, the drink proves lethal to a fellow migrant worker, Freddie scrams to San Francisco, where fate sees him sneaking aboard an elegant ship upon which a party is under way. Once again, Anderson's visuals are breathtaking, with the beautiful craft lit to appear as an irresistible haven and its passage under the Golden Gate Bridge a hauntingly romantic image of a dream voyage. As the ship makes it way to New York via Panama, the host, the dazzlingly articulate Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), recognizes at once that Freddie is a scoundrel but welcomes the stowaway nonetheless, both for his cocktails (the secret ingredient of which turns out to be paint thinner) and, no doubt, for the challenge of curing him, as setting people straight is the goal of the quasi-mystical personal-improvement enterprise called The Cause that Dodd leads. “You're aberrated,” Dodd declares. “You've strayed from the proper path.”
Thus follow some intense and riveting “recording” sessions, in which Dodd interrogates his subject, rapidly reiterating the same question time and again to flush out truthful answers on the most sensitive of topics. Presumably this technique is akin to Scientology's auditing process and in dramatic terms the scenes are terrifically effective, both for the visceral impact of the exchanges and their revelatory nature.
The voyage is a wedding cruise for Dodd's daughter Susan (Jillian Bell) and new son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), so the ship is loaded with family, most importantly his all-seeing wife, Mary Sue (Amy Adams), near-lookalike son Val (Jesse Plemons) and the inner circle of The Cause. Later, at a tony gathering in Manhattan, Dodd expounds upon his belief that man is not an animal, that we have all been here on Earth before and that, with proper training, people can be purged of “all negative impulses.”
The latter promise is sorely tested by Freddie, who's like an obedient puppy dog with rabies. When Val, in discussing his father's teachings, astonishingly confides that, “He's making all this up as he goes along,” Freddie loses it, attacking some cops in a maniacal rage and prompting Dodd's ever-watchful wife to warn, “He'll be our undoing.”
But after building for more than an hour with a combination of dynamic scenes, charged talk, provocative confrontations and the occasional semi-surreal vision, such as having all the women at a social gathering suddenly be shown entirely naked, The Master plateaus dramatically -- at a pretty high altitude, but nonetheless in a way that makes the road ahead flatten out very much like the vast desert terrain where Dodd challenges Freddie to an odd motorcycle competition that, like the film, itself ends inconclusively.
A convincing dynamic leaks from the film once the two men see each other for what they are: Freddie realizes Dodd is a fraud, and the older man understands that the younger one can only hurt The Cause; as constructed, that should be the end of things. But the film moves forward, to not uninteresting but less persuasive effect, toward a finale that seems unworthy of so much that has come before.
As for the Scientology angle, certain aspects of The Cause invite ready comparison to L. Ron Hubbard and his creation: The processing sequences, the constant moving around and living on a boat, the guru's prolific writing, the midcentury time frame, the allusions to time travel and so on. Still, much of this could apply to other self-help/New Age agendas as well, and if Anderson had really wanted to mine the early days of Scientology he could have had a much juicier film, what with all the sexual shenanigans, legal scrapes, boldface lies and exaggerations that are part of the organization's past. If anything, Scientology gets off easy here.
Perhaps Phoenix's so-called retirement four years ago was worthwhile, as he's never shown anything near the power, mystery and dangerous unpredictability he serves up as the emotionally inchoate Freddie. Just being around this guy will cause unease in many viewers, especially women, who will smell a rat from the outset, so it's impressive that he and Anderson have been able to build such a complex work around such a derelict figure.
By contrast, Lancaster Dodd, no matter how dedicated to flimflammery, is erudite, persuasive and, at heart, generous; he likes to share -- his house, hospitality and beliefs, even if he is a philosophical snake oil salesman. Hoffman is brilliantly focused, deliciously enunciating the man's many theories, sometimes while sweaty and red-faced from inebriation and at all times believable as a man capable of inspiring a faithful following.
In the one female part of any size, Adams at first appears restricted by the subordinate status of obedient wife who dutifully sits on the sidelines. But she notices everything and always steps in (including in a most unexpected stress-reducing husband-wife sex interlude) with crucial contributions when she needs to. Adams underplays it all to strong effect.
Visually, The Master is bracing, resplendent, almost hyper-sensitizing. Pictorial elements such as ocean seas, skin tones, clothing fabrics and early evening light are vibrantly magnified by the 70mm celluloid so skillfully used by Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimareh Jr. (Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt for Francis Ford Coppola). By any standards, the film is a visual feast. (This marks the first time the director has worked with a director of photography other than Robert Elswit, who was busy on The Bourne Legacy.) As the film is not an epic in the usual sense of grand locations and antiquity and does not employ a widescreen format, it's a bit surprising that this, of all films, is the first American dramatic feature to have been shot in its virtual entirety in 70mm (specifically, Panavision System 65) since Ron Howard's Far and Away in 1992. Due to the great format's essential disuse, The Weinstein Company has been finding it difficult to secure properly equipped cinemas even in some major cities to present it to the director's specifications.
Work in all production departments is equally exacting, notably the diverse production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk, Mark Bridges' detailed costumes and the bold editing by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty.
Greenwood, whose score for There Will Be Blood was so daring and effective, provides eerie music with a life of its own that Anderson allows to whoosh and sweep through scenes in an unorthodox way that is sometimes supportive and elsewhere works as bizarre counterpoint. Like everything else about the film, it is highly particular and bracingly outside the norm.
Opens: Sept. 21 (The Weinstein Company)
Production: Annapura Pictures
Venues: Venice, Toronto film festivals
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Jillian Bell, Rami Malek, Kevin J. O'Connor, W. Earl Brown, Ambyr Childers, Fiona Dourif, Lena Endre
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Executive producers: Ted Schipper, Adam Somner
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designers: David Crank, Jack Fisk
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Music: Jonny Greenwood
R rating, 132 minutes