Much of the pre-release buzz surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" had to do with whether the film, which features a mid-century guru a la L. Ron Hubbard, was going to take on Scientology. It doesn't, which is probably a good thing, and maybe a bad thing. What we do have is an intense and ferociously acted study of the relationship between two very different men; one a charismatic leader, the other his volatile minion. But what we also have is an extremely challenging work, seemingly devoid of discipline and focus, that forces the viewer to root around in the search for meaning. Now, I'm not suggesting that art spoon-feed us the Big Ideas; I'm just saying that this impeccably crafted film might be too ambitious and too chilly to allow for any real resonance.
What's definitely a good thing, though, is that Joaquin Phoenix is back. Gaunt and hunched over, the right side of his face contorted into a nearly imperceptible snarl, the two-time Oscar nominee plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic WWII vet whose aimlessness leaves him ripe for the picking after he stows away on a boat adorned with twinkly lights and happy people. That's where Freddie first encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lordly man who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher." Dodd makes no mention of "cult leader" even though he's the head of a Scientology-like sect known as The Cause. Freddie doesn't appear to be particularly interested in Dodd's ideas, but he warms to the notion of being the man's "guinea pig and protegé."
Mostly Freddie just channels an often feral nature into his unofficial role as Dodd's enforcer, beating consensus into nonbelievers despite the concerns of both Dodd and his deceptively demure wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). But as he criss-crosses the country with The Cause and its acolytes, conflict, naturally, arises whenever one man fails to live up to the other's expectations. ("He's making it up as he goes along," says Dodd's son Val, played by the perfectly cast Jesse Plemons.) Freddie is the viewer's ostensible surrogate and our guide into the Dodds' world, but he's too busy wrestling his own demons to give us any tangible insight, like why so many are drawn to Dodd's message and even why Freddie sticks around.
"The Master" couldn't be more gorgeous, as Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. lends an earthbound beauty to images as diverse as a dusty desert, the Golden Gate Bridge at twilight, or a simple two-person conversation. The sights are gilded with an elegantly cacophonous score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who also did the music for Anderson's previous film, the Oscar-winning "There Will Be Blood." Touching upon themes like postwar ennui and religion's potentially troubling influence, Anderson nonetheless anchors "The Master" in his recurring theme that explores the intricacies of the father-son connection. But we're unable to get too close to these unlikable men, making investment in their fates tough.
The performances, however, are towering, and reason enough to see "The Master." Hoffman, who has made five features with Anderson, has the less-showy part, playing a powerful, self-possessed man in complete control... until he isn't. And between his physical mannerisms and wild-card outbursts, Phoenix comes very close to overacting, but his authentic unpredictability sells it. (The scenes between the two, especially the "processing interlude," are veritable master classes.) Yet Adams is this film's MVP, earning a place among her generation's best whether she's oh-so-subtly morphing from sweet wife to protective tigress, or giving her husband the most autocratic handjob in cinema history.