In one respect, Paul Thomas Anderson stands apart from even the best of living American directors: he is both a fabricator of spectacle and a shrewd psychologist. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese achieve all sorts of pyrotechnics but rarely employ them to sound the depths of their characters. Though Terrence Malick floods the screen with startling imagery, he has lately seemed more interested in the destiny of all humankind than in individual souls. But Anderson comes across as an astonishing cinematic hybrid. Like David Lean, he surrounds his characters with landscapes and sights that need the horizontal sweep of 65mm photography. But like Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer, he scours faces and gestures in search of the tumult within people, never arriving at any pat conclusions. The search terminates in mystery.

The Master is Anderson’s sixth feature. If it’s not quite at the level of his last and best film, There Will Be Blood, it’s at least as good as his first two, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights—and far superior to his interesting misfires, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. Although it could be taken as a portrait of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (which Anderson researched before writing his script), The Master is neither veiled biography nor journalism. Rather, it’s an imaginative depiction of a mentor-disciple relationship, which mordantly demonstates that, while opposites may attract, they don’t necessarily harmonize.

In the very first shot of the film, we see churning water, and the repetition of this image throughout the story, accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s throbbing score, reminds us that certain kinds of turmoil are eternal. In the first full scene, we see the same water lapping the shore of a South Pacific beach, where sailors loll near the end of World War II. A few of them have created a big-breasted female form out of the sand. It seems no more than a little light-hearted, sex-starved ribaldry, and so might the behavior of the sailor who mounts the sand woman and pretends to have sex with her, except for the fact that he seems so strangely intent and babyish. His fellow servicemen guffaw for a few seconds and then fall silent. The sailor’s minor crudeness appears downright repulsive in the midst of this temporary paradise for weary warriors, so beautifully captured by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. Throughout this movie, as in There Will Be Blood, natural beauty will loom over human neuroses like a melancholy reproach.

The sailor’s name is Freddie Quell, and his infantilism persists after he returns to civilian life on the West Coast. At first he makes a living as a portrait photographer at a department store, but soon his abrasiveness—fueled by moonshine concocted out of ethanol, Lysol, and paint thinner—marks him as a troublemaker. After a brawl in the department store gets him fired, he goes to work in the fields of Salinas, California, harvesting cabbage. There another fieldworker falls deathly ill after drinking some of Quell’s home brew, forcing Freddie to flee. He arrives at a dock, where his life changes in an instant crystallized by one of the most haunting shots ever put on screen: we see a cruise ship at nightfall, its upper deck illuminated. People dressed for a dinner party watch a couple dancing to the 1920s big-band hit “Sweet Sue.” The male partner appears to be the center of attention, a king graciously relaxing his gravitas before his court. As the camera glides from left to right along the vessel, Freddie scuttles like a rat in the same direction, paying little attention to the dancers, just desperate for shelter. He jumps onto the bottom deck. Given the magical glow of the lighting and the camera’s graceful sweep, it looks as if a lost soul has found refuge on a floating paradise. Only after we’ve seen the rest of the film will we realize how laden with irony this gorgeous shot is, how the very gorgeousness is ironic.

The kingly dancer is Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a movement (or cult?) called The Cause. He is taking the ship on a cruise that will end in New York, where he will try to expand his kingdom. When Dodd meets the stowaway Freddie Quell, he takes him into his inner circle, where he becomes the Master’s fiercest and most volatile acolyte.

Dodd insists that human beings “are not part of the animal kingdom,” and that the mental and physical exercises he’s invented, called “processing,” enable his followers to achieve their “inherent state of perfect.” Befriending Freddie is Dodd’s way of rising to a challenge, for everything about this loner—his uncouth manners, violent temper, and infantile sexuality—reminds one of an animal. Even his adherence to The Cause is like a dog’s blind devotion to its master. If Dodd can elicit transcendence even from Freddie, it will be a testimony both to the power of his philosophy and his mastery over others.

This “master” claims his goal is to unchain the human spirit, but the faithfulness Dodd expects from followers borders on slavishness. At first Freddie seems happily servile, but his temper soon erupts, first against his mentor’s critics and then against Dodd himself. Dodd doesn’t want to extinguish what he regards as the life force at the root of Freddie’s behavior; he wants to harness it. But nothing about Freddie Quell can be harnessed. So most of this movie is a tug of war between a controlling personality attracted to chaos and a wild spirit yearning for shelter but unable to accept the constraints of asylum.

Or is it merely a battle between a charlatan and a dimwitted delinquent? Dodd is undeniably slippery and manipulative, and his own son says he is “making it all up,” but the script also suggests that Dodd may be, by his own lights, sincere. He’s greedy for power, certainly, but not for mere lucre. The Cause is more than a business opportunity; it’s a mission. In one scene, Dodd’s daughter, son-in-law, and wife (superbly portrayed by the usually sunny Amy Adams as a tower of baleful strength) all urge him to drop Freddie, warning that he might be an agent provocateur or a maniac. A confidence man would probably heed such advice in order to protect his reputation and his earnings, but Dodd replies that shunning Freddie would prove that The Cause had failed. As Dodd, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who played a real conman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) projects the glow of a charismatic dreamer, blending pensiveness with bonhomie and smiling authoritarianism. Of course, con men can be genial, too, but the film includes private moments when Dodd is too stricken with self-doubt and disappointment to maintain his façade. At such moments, it’s not a game plan that seems under threat but self-esteem and a vision of how much better life could be. Megalomania, yes. Hypocrisy, no.

If Hoffman’s Dodd is dangerously seductive, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie is courageously repulsive. Phoenix somehow keeps both his mouth and his spine in a permanent twist. He has never been so physically intimidating (Freddie is far more frightening than the psycho Roman Emperor Phoenix played in Gladiator) but he is also careful to seize on the compelling moments of tenderness the script provides for his character. The flashbacks to his courtship of a teenage girl possess ardency, and his later conversation with her mother shows a possibility of growth in the floundering man. Like Dodd, you might find yourself unwilling to give up on Freddie Quell.

There are some loose ends. Laura Dern, good as a rich patron of The Cause, has such a compelling confrontation with Dodd near the end of the film that you have to wonder why she’s given so little to do earlier. The situation of Dodd’s son, living comfortably within his father’s entourage despite his skepticism, cries out for more exploration than the script gives it. One wonders whether crucial scenes weren’t left on the cutting room floor.

Nevertheless, in its portrait of a post–World War II America full of possibilities, real and illusory, and in its portrayal of two men headed in opposite directions—one pursuing spurious wisdom and self-agrandisement, the other into compulsive, directionless rebellion—this movie is unforgettable.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: View Contents
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