“Open your eyes, come back to me.”
The renowned young adult author John Green has referred to religion as a “response to revelation.” It’s finding your own enlightenment, but in most cases it’s other people sharing their own “revelations” with you and becoming entwined with a community of followers, for better or worse. This is a theme that has run through all of writer/director/genius Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. This includes the family of adult film actors that Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler joined in the porno-“Goodfellas” extravaganza of “Boogie Nights,” the literally Biblical events that unite and tear apart strangers in Los Angeles in the stormy opera of “Magnolia,” to the more internal relationships that defined “Punch-Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood,” respectively romantic and exploitative. “The Master,” the latest visionary masterwork from Anderson, is perhaps the most literal, distilled variation on this theme. All of the controversy surrounding this film and its alleged connections to L.Ron Hubbard and Scientology is merely window dressing to the duel of intertwining souls in this enigmatic, surprisingly funny, sometimes confounding but always spellbinding marvel, one of the greatest achievements in American film so far this decade.
The setting is America shortly after the end of World War II, with traumatized sailor Freddie Quell (an amazing, scary Joaquin Phoenix) coming home, trying to reintegrate himself into the still adjusting post-war American society. Freddie is an insane, ferocious wreck. He is a man reduced to his base needs, which in the words of Mick Jagger, are to “fight, fuck and feed.” He gets into fights with customers while a photographer at a department store, he is obsessed with sex to a troubling degree, instantly devolving into a mangy dog in heat when women are around. And he “feeds” on his own special brand of cocktails containing Lysol, paint thinner and photo developing fluid, which affects his already damaged mind and comes close to killing a co-worker at the farm he works at briefly. Lost deep in his chemically-induced haze, Freddie stumbles onto a docked ship, which happens to be the flagship vessel of one Lancaster Dodd (an equally amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman, displaying nuance for days), the charismatic leader of a small flock calling themselves The Cause, and they’re on a pilgrimage to New York City. The cause focuses on forcing people into their own memories through “processing,” which will help them reach a sort of perfect stasus which allows them to live across billions of years. Dodd is preparing to release a second book on the subject, and his heavily pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams, doing an eerily quiet take on Lady Macbeth) is always at his side. Dodd samples some of Freddie’s elixir, and is immediately drawn to him; he is just the sort of broken (perhaps gullible) soul that Dodd can mold into an example of his vision of an eternal inner utopia.
Any fears that “The Master” will be a takedown of Scientology through the proxy that is the Cause (taking down Scientology is becoming pretty superfluous anyway) quickly dissipate once Dodd and Freddie meet. Freddie is naturally skeptical about the supernatural pablum Dodd is trying to sell him, but his resistance weakens as he gets to know him and his followers. Dodd is a charismatic speaker, with an air of empathy and quick wit; the perfect package to sell a cult with. When we see him explain the Cause, with its roots in time travel and cleansing one’s soul to strengthen their existence, does he know he’s full of shit, or does he believe in this mission, knowing that the effect it can have on people is more important than authenticity? And what does Freddie want from him? Does he see a father figure, a friend, or maybe something even deeper? Also, there is the biggest mystery of all: who is truly the “master”?
“The Master” isn’t interested in easy resolution; it truly is a mystery that only gets solved in the mind of the viewer. It’s appropriate that the Blu-ray cover has a Rorschach blot, because the relationships and Anderson’s vision of this story’s true purpose is like an amoeba, or a vessel onto which we can project our own interpretation of what this movie is trying to do. One of the most interesting things about Anderson, is how he flipped the script on how director’s progress through their careers. A lot of filmmakers expand their scope as they get more comfortable with the medium, but Anderson’s films have contracted, both in their stories and in the filmmaking. “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” were bombastic ensemble pieces, with Anderson’s camera in overdrive, paying tribute to Scorsese and Altman in his ecstatic portraits of fractured souls in California. But the Adam Sandler deconstruction “Punch-Drunk Love” and the “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Oil” geyser “There Will Be Blood,” (although the latter does have big things to say about the dark side of American capitalism), are relatively small scale, reducing all of the enormous gestures of storytelling ecstasy into intimate grace notes, keeping the camera a still observer. “The Master” continues down that path, with long takes and intricate framing compositions keeping the story at a low boil. Even though the movie is shot on glorious 65mm film, “The Master” focuses on indoor scenes and the duels between the strange souls that populate this world.
You could write a novel on the the subtext of the relationship between Dodd and Freddie. Freddie is a lost soul, ravaged by his need for the flesh and his experiences in the war. To call what Phoenix, in the performance of his life, does in this movie “acting” kind of undersells it. Freddie feels like something ripped from his soul, with the nerve endings still exposed. In his first role since the elaborate retirement prank, he approaches the heights of early Brando in the blinding intensity he gives Freddie. His face and body are always twisting into odd shapes, as if he’s doing a parody of how people should compose themselves. Recalling the scalding male id of Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia” and Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” Freddie is an unpredictable menace who is still recognizably human.
On the other side is Dodd. Hoffman has appeared in every P.T. Anderson film except for “There Will Be Blood,” and he does some of his best acting ever as well. He is a snake-oil salesman, but there is some empathy in him, and troubling rage further underneath. He is able to listen to and debate unbelievers for so wrong, before he turns belligerent, desperate to protect his livelihood. His followers refer to him as “master,” but is he really? Could it be his wife Peggy, who Adams gives an calm tenacity that masks a cutthroat ambition, who is pulling the strings? She insists the Cause must attack the skeptical to expand their influence, and she uses sex, the same thing that consumes Freddie, to keep Dodd docile. This triumvirate is America’s relationship with religion in microcosm. Do the leaders need the congregation to preach to and control, or does the congregation need its leader to maintain the sense of community that gives some forward motion to lives that might be wayward or empty? Anderson’s beautifully written script, which brings back the wicked sense of humor that lied dormant for most of “There Will Be Blood,” works in concert with his direction, drawing these characters astonishingly well while leaving mysteries underlying their true nature keeping “The Master” from every being fully solved.
There is one scene that distills the movie’s intent: the first processing scene, where Dodd first transforms Freddie from skeptic to believer: he tells him not to blink, and asks him a series of questions that ask about where he’s been, that the past might have the key to the future. Anderson’s camera is firmly directed on Freddie’s dark eyes, endless canyons that erupt with feeling once he is forced to relive the sordid sexual history in his family and his own relationship with a 16-year-old girl, who at first looks like another lecherous conquest but may have been the first person who accepted Freddie as a person. This scene is breathtaking and Freddie goes from a deranged unbeliever to a pitiful, pleading animal. Dodd becomes his mentor, father, friend and bully all at once.
But as questions arise questioning the honesty of the Cause, the war inside Freddie’s head rages like the endless blue ocean that we get plenty of shots of. Freddie does improve under the Cause’s spell, but at what cost? How safe is it to devote your life to something you can never fully understand? The film eschews normal structure to probe this question, but there is nothing clinical about “The Master.” There are still emotional crescendos all through this thing, hidden in plain sight. I still don’t have a full grasp on everything this movie does, but Paul Thomas Anderson, cementing his place as the greatest contemporary filmmaker in America if not the entire world, makes “The Master” an exhilarating journey of the mind that will mean different things to different people, which is the sign of a true work of art. Freddie and Dodd are in a tug-of-war that has gone on since the dawn of time, so there is no easy resolution. It is a strange, puzzling work, but there’s no doubt that this is truly an American masterpiece.