Film Review: The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s richly evocative period drama is shot like a dream and has acting pyrotechnics to spare, but lacks some of the director’s characteristically thunderous panache.

The Master makes what should have been long obvious now utterly clear: Paul Thomas Anderson can lay claim to being one of the era’s few American writer-directors afflicted with greatness. It is hard to think of another homegrown filmmaker who so consistently brings such psychologically astute scripting, the ability to coax nakedly revelatory performances from actors, and that classically trained eye for framing to each film he makes. After a few punchy neo-pulp art-house mini-epics and his arrestingly experimental There Will Be Blood in 2007, a once-in-a-career kind of masterpiece, the expectations for a new Anderson film can be excused for being unrealistically high. To that point, The Master may not match the level of artistry or thematic intensity seen in Blood, but it is Anderson’s most approachable film in years, with his most vividly realized characters to date. There won’t be much else like it on screens this year.

Although it’s been billed as a story about an L. Ron Hubbard-like character amassing followers in cult-of-personality-friendly postwar California, Anderson’s film is really about that leader’s sidekick. We first see Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, barely keeping a lid on his raging character with the symbolic last name) as a Navy seaman going slightly mad on a Pacific island during the war. With his chin cocked forward, lip curled up and arms akimbo, he stalks around in a kind of fog, quelling his inner demons with lusty fantasies and hefty gulps of his deadly-to-mortals moonshine. After being diagnosed with a “nervous condition” (1940s-speak for PTSD), he heads stateside and becomes a boozing and brawling disaster as a civilian.

At the bottom of one spiral in 1950, Freddie drunkenly crashes a wedding on a yacht. Waking up the next day, he meets the bride’s father, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a puffed-up swell who introduces himself with the classically grandiloquent and folksy mannerism of the born cult leader, or politician: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man. Just like you.” Ever the bottoming-out drifter, Freddie sees Lancaster and his subservient acolytes, including his submissive-on-the-outside wife Peggy (Amy Adams, more prickly than her sunny norm), as easy marks.

But Freddie’s worldview gets shaken when he starts submitting to Lancaster’s patented blend of hypnosis, word games and pseudo-therapeutic regression therapies. The more Freddie starts facing his past traumas (dark family history, a romance that ended badly), the more he also bonds with Lancaster, who treats him alternately as an adoptive son, protégé, unevolved “animal” inferior, and supplier of potent homemade liquor. Their connection deepens schizophrenically: The more Freddie starts to suspect Lancaster might be a fraud, the more he savagely defends the boss like a Brown Shirt thug. Belief doesn’t matter; belonging does.

Anderson keeps the exact details of Lancaster’s theology fuzzy, though with its talk of “processing” and past lives, he clearly means to echo Scientology’s cocktail of fake science-fiction histories, “auditing” and individuality-crushing tests of loyalty. He leaves the stage to Phoenix and Hoffman, who scheme around their characters’ egos and desires like master fencers; the film hinges on a couple of scenes of bruising conversational combat that leave one agape at these actors’ command of their characters. Although set mostly in the margins, Adams delivers in a few key scenes that hint of much darker things behind Peggy and Lancaster’s sunny marriage. Her and Freddie’s machinations around Lancaster help cast the film’s title in a wholly different light by the end.

Although the emotional conflict here is more sharply rendered than in Anderson’s previous films, it’s a quiet work for him, not striving for the gonzo surrealist highs of Blood or Magnolia. The look and sound is impressive: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s 70mm cinematography has a luminous Terrence Malick sheen, while Jonny Greenwood’s score rackets and roils with an atonal intensity. As usual, Anderson’s script leaves a few too many gaps in the story by the final third, but the mysterious dysfunction tying these two men together more than compensates.

Hopefully it won’t take Anderson another five years to finish his next film. But if that is what he needs to produce something like The Master, then a 2017 premiere will be just fine.