Master, The

With the arrival of the eagerly awaited “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson reaffirms his status as one of the most audacious directors working in American cinema today.

By standards of Hollywood, Anderson is a “slow” director—the opposite of the prolific and diverse Steven Soderbergh, who now makes one or two pictures per year. “The Master” is Anderson’s first film in five years, and his sixth feature in a career spanning seventeen years.

An impressive portrait of drifters and seekers in post-World War II America, “The Master” is an honorable follow-up to the 2007 Oscar-nominated epic, “There Will Be Blood,” which swept all the major awards from the L.A. Film Critics Association (of which I am ex-president and current voting member).

Unabashedly ambitious as director and supremely skillful as craftsman, Anderson makes films that are impressive in their ideas, characterizations, performances, and technical mastery of every aspect of the filmmaking process. Despite the fact that “The Master” is not as compelling or coherent as “There Will Be Blood,” it reveals a director at the top of his form.

After an auspicious beginning with two ensemble-driven films, “Boogie Nights” in 1997 (in my view, his best work to date) and “Magnolia” in 1999, Anderson has moved into in-depth, more focused narratives that revolve around a small number of personas. Like “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” is intriguing and provocative, but not as overall satisfying as that film, due to structural, pacing, and tonal issues.

At the center of this text, which is set in 1950, is the journey of a disturbed Navy veteran, who arrives home from the War unsettled and uncertain of his future, placed against the broader socio-political context of American society in the crucial phases of renewal and change, right after the Second World War.

What unifies this chronicle, which, as always with Anderson’s films, consists of big set-pieces, is the great, complementary, acting of two superlative thespians, Joaquin Phoenix, in a comeback turn, and the always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman (who has appeared in all of Anderson’s pictures except for the last one).

In this intense portraiture film, Phoenix and Hoffman play two vastly different, if also charismatic men, one a spontaneous, irresponsible and often dangerous drifter, the other, an intellectual charlatan, a heavy-duty talker, who claims to know all the answers to life’s problems, and is more than willing to manipulate others with his presumably useful and powerful knowledge.

For years, rumors have circulated in town that “The Master” will be a critical (scatological?) anatomy of Scientology, the controversial religion, which was recently in the news again, due to the high-profile divorce of Katie Holmes from Tom Cruise, a champion of Scientology (who, by the way, gave a most interesting, self-deprecating performance as a sex guru in Anderson’s “Magnolia”). But what unfolds on screen is a tale that could apply to other spiritual (New Age) and religious systems.

“The Master” shows Anderson’s fascination with the birth of new alternative spiritual factions and newly established religions. From Eastern asceticism to Dianetics, the early 1950s are depicted as a crucial decade in which many Americans began to build grassroots communities devoted to realizing grand visions of human potential.

World-premiering this week at the Venice Film Fest (in competition) and playing at Toronto Film Fest next week, “The Master” will be released by the Weinstein Company on September 21, a suitable date announcing the beginning of the fall season and the release of serious, Oscar caliber movies. (While the status of “The Master”” as Best Picture contender is iffy, both Phoenix and Hoffman deserve serious consideration for Oscar nominations).

Visually striking, and technically a feast to the eyes and ears, “The Master”” was shot in the 70mm format, and, given the choice, it should be seen in movie theaters equipped for such showings.

The first, almost silent reel focuses on the deviant conduct of the sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a strange (to say the least), charismatic, sex-obsessed man, who suffers from a vague nervous condition upon discharge from WWII.

Working as a photographer at a department store, Freddie violates rules right and left, like assaulting customers, and showing erratic behavior on other occasions, which costs him his job. At his next job, working in cabbage fields, Freddie offers a mysterious, lethal drink to a fellow migrant worker, which forces him to escape to San Francisco and board a grand, elegant ship heading to New York City via Panama.

It’s here that Freddie first encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charming man who would become both his friend/nemesis and equal/counterpart. (Did Anderson name the character after the late movie star Burt Lancaster, who won an Oscar for playing the charlatan evangelist in Richard Brooks’ 1960 “Ëlmer Gantry”?)

The articulate Dodd recognizes Freddie as a scoundrel—he calls him animal–but still welcomes the stowaway, both for his specialty in making nasty cocktails (which invariably evokes, “Oh My God!” From the drinkers) and for the challenge of treating and curing him from “past mistakes.”  Setting people straight is the goal of his mystical improvement enterprise, simply named The Cause.

In intense “recording” sessions, Dodd interrogates his subject, repeating the same issues and questions four or five time, pretending to go for ”the truth,” in a relentless search presumably motivated by his genuine care and concern for Freddie.

It turns out that the voyage and big party represent a wedding cruise for Dodd’s daughter, Susan (Jillian Bell) and her future husband Clark (Rami Malek). Among the participants are Dodd’s wife, Mary Sue (Amy Adams), his son Val (Jesse Plemons) and other distinguished members of The Cause.

Later, at a meeting in Manhattan, Dodd expresses his basic values, observing that human beings are not animals and, more importantly, that, with the proper training (namely, his intervention), individuals can be purged of their vices, be cured, and begin new healthier, lives

Secrets, disclosures and revelations ensue, as when Val criticizes his father’s preaching, claiming that Dodd is making/faking all this up. Soon, Freddie, Dodd’s main target, begins to lose it, and at one point attacks some cops, who come to arrest Dodd for fraudulent behavior, in an outburst of rage.

Dramatically, the narrative is uneven in terms of involvement, or in serving what should have been a more linear and orderly tale. While there are many fascinating scenes, charged encounters, and provocative confrontations, occasionally, Anderson the writer resorts to lengthy monologues (speeches) and talk-driven sequences that are borderline verbose, even if they are meant to illustrate the recurring themes of The Cause—and his feature.

The plotting from that point on gets less logical and more erratic and arbitrary. This is manifest in a David Lean-like scene in which Dodd challenges Freddie to a motorcycle competition in the open desert, as if their ongoing rivalry and threatening battle of wills were not sufficient enough.

Gradually, the two men see through each other: Freddie realizes Dodd might be a fake and a fraud, and Dodd realizes that Freddie is dangerous and can cause personal as well as professional harm.

Rest of the tale is less compelling, and discerning critics (and viewers) may be able to point out at what point the narrative begins to lose its steam and dramatic momentum. Moreover, it doesn’t help that the conclusion is not particularly satisfying–it feels as if Anderson were considering different finales before choosing the current one).

Certain aspects of “The Cause” will inevitably be compared to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, such as the processing sequences, prolific writing, historical time frame, interrogation methods, and so on, but as I had already pointed, Anderson’s ideological targets are broader and go beyond Scientology.

Anderson has always been attracted to characters that are outsiders who belong to different social classes, but create, under various circumstances, distinctive subcultures that allows them to feel a sense of belongingness as members of close-knit communities, be they deviant (such as “Boogie Nights” and its porn industry-community) or more legitimate and institutionalized ones.

In “The Master,” Freddie is the classic American outsider, who comes into a community, which in the process both shapes and changes him.  Anderson’s tale is a kind of tragic love story between Freddie and the Master. Freddie longs to be part of something bigger than himself, yet he can’t commit to anybody or anything for too long (including a girlfriend he claims to love years after they had met. For his part, the Master yearns for Freddie to be the loyal yet reliable son he never had, yet can’t quite make that work. (Throughout, Dodd shows contempt for his son-in-law, Clark, who is a weakling).

In a comeback role (after threatening to give up acting altogether several years ago), Joaquin Phoenix is extremely well cast as the unnerving and unbalanced Freddie, a complex and complicated man who is weird in every possible way, physical, mental and emotional; just watch the way he walks or carried his soldier.  Much more slender than the norm, Phoenix is extremely handsome in this film, with a look that resembles the young Mel Gibson.

Has Philip Seymour Hoffman ever given a bad or mediocre performance? Here, he again excels in playing a persuasive man capable of inspiring, manipulating, and lying to large and diverse following. Hoffman is brilliant in expressing with gusto and gravitas Dodd’s theories, easily modified to fit the particular nature of his audience of listeners.  Dodd publishes a series of books that basically contradict themselves.

Women are underrepresented in this tale, just as they were in “There Will Be Blood.” In a restrained but forceful performance, Amy Adams (who co-starred with Hoffman in “Doubt”) plays Dodd’s obedient and dutiful wife, a femme who notices every small detail and always watches over Dodd, Val, and all the others around her.  She has a particularly powerful scene, jerking off her husband in front of a mirror, forcing him to climax, while demanding that he can “fool around so long as no one in public sees it.”

Offering many visual pleasures, “The Master” marks the first time that Anderson has worked with a cinematographer other than the brilliant Robert Elswit (who was busy shooting Gilory’s “Bourne Legacy”). But Anderson benefits here from collaborating with the gifted Romanian director of photography Mihai Malaimareh Jr., who had shot Coppola’s last several features, including “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro.”

As craftsman, Anderson continues to show exacting eyes and ears and meticulous attention to detail. Jonny Greenwood, who has done the striking music for “There Will Be Blood,” provides yet another forceful and discordant, deliberately non-melodic score, which serves well the characters’ shifting emotions and contradictory situations.

Production values are striking across the board, most notably the detailed production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk, authentic costumes by Mark Bridges, and sharp editing, which highlights effectively the text’s oppositions and dichotomies, by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty.

MPAA Rating: R

Running time: 133 Minutes