In his last and possibly best film, There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson dove headlong into a character who is a very specific, very important American archetype. Daniel Plainview, who was almost an instant icon, was the American Dream embodied and curdled, a salesman and sociopath who shaped the wilderness of the country in his own image. In his new film The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a uniquely American character not unlike Daniel Plainview, a man who chooses to shape people rather than nature. But the film's focus is divided between Hoffman's cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a drifter who falls under Dodd's spell. It gives the film a range of themes and some powerhouse scenes between the two, but also muddles its focus; The Master is beautiful and thought-provoking, but also frustratingly inaccessible and opaque about its meaning.
In a way that's always always been Anderson's style-- who can claim they know the deal with those frogs at the end of Magnolia?-- but The Master is a film about ideas that's also oddly disconnected from them, exploring the nascent cult Lancaster Dodd has founded without ever giving real meaning to his teachings. Hoffman plays Dodd as a fiery but uniquely entertaining man, holding his followers and the audience in rapt attention through vague speeches about achieving higher awareness and the existence of past lives. He is calm when prodding his followers to new "revelations" but quick to anger in the face of skeptics, ebullient on his daughter's wedding day but cold the next. He's mercurial but giving and endlessly confident, which is what makes him such a great leader-- and such a fascinating to follow and never quite understand throughout the film.
But he's nothing compared to Freddie, the film's untamable and menacing heart, a man cut loose from the all-or-nothing morals of World War II into a country that doesn't have room for him. We meet him first on a Navy beach outpost where he takes every joke too far and does insane things like drink rocket fuel; after the war he's left taking portraits at a posh department store, and who can be surprised when that blows up in his face. Like any good American origin myth, Freddie's meeting with Dodd happens entirely by accident, hopping on board a gleaming party boat that's sailing away beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. After a intense kind of psychotherapy called "processing" and some straight talk with Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams), Freddie is brought into Dodd's confidence-- and the insular, unblinking world of The Cause-- before he or we quite understand how it happened.
Despite all the talk of Dodd being a thinly veiled take on L. Ron Hubbard, nothing in The Master reflects that heavily on the real world, and for all the ways we see Freddie and Dodd straining against the confines of post-war American life, their story isn't presented in the mythic tones you might expect. The best parts of The Master are when it condenses down into tinderbox scenes between Freddie and Lancaster, the two of them probing and defying each other, sometimes exploding-- as in an unforgettable scene in a prison cell-- or gazing at each other with the kind of sadness and affection you might expect from lovers. Freddie is not like the devoted, thoughtful followers Dodd has already amassed-- he's like a feral animal, with poor impulse control and disturbing sexual obsessions, and that challenge to overcome his base nature fits neatly into Dodd's rambling teachings about connecting to a higher self.
Shot in rich, detailed 70 mm that adds unexpected depth and clarity to even the simplest scenes, The Master is gorgeous in its careful construction, but also a little distant and hard to grasp. A second viewing seems practically a requirement, like many of Anderson's films, and it's a little painful to write this review now, knowing I haven't yet gotten the whole picture. Based around undeniably great performances, impeccable design and Anderson's unnerving confidence behind the camera, The Master is unforgettable, but like the mercurial men at its center, the harder you try to read into it, the more it slips away into the distance.