Midway through Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film “The Master,” the camera frames two men side by side. To the right, we see a casual gentleman. He’s wearing a fitted suit, leaning in elegant repose with a sense of assurance and authority beyond his years. This is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher and man.
To the left is an entirely different scene. Absent is the sense of sedate confidence Dodd exudes. This man thrashes in violent throes, batters every object in sight, breaks a toilet with the force of one foot and practically foams at the mouth in searing rage. Meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) — sailor, alcoholic and man.
Before the film’s release, much was said about the parallels between the story of “The Master” and the founding of Scientology. Both take place in the 1950s, both involve a deified figure and both incite the word “cult.” However, aside from those circumstantial details, Scientology does not enter the equation. Anderson has something broader in mind — something more universal, something embodied in these two men.
Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd live in a post-WWII America. Economic abundance is evident. Fur coats cost $49.99, and peoples’ faces glow with the radiance of contentment. After the war, Quell attempts to enter this world. He takes portraits at a department store, but he gets into a physical altercation with a customer. He then labors on a farm in California but runs away after he’s suspected of poisoning a co-worker. In a drunken haze, he stumbles onto the boat of one Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a pseudo-religious group dubbed “the Cause.”
To glean anything more from this would be challenging and a disservice to those who have yet to see it. Anderson’s film is intentionally abstract. Why the Cause exists and who these people are remain unclear. “The Master” revels in a kind of languorous ambiguity where manic scenes of alcohol-induced terror and intense psychological interrogation are punctuated by meditative images of the lulling sea. In pristine detail (aided by its 70 mm print), we see the intimate intricacies of Joaquin Phoenix’s slack-jawed, yet simple, face as he goes head-to-head with Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most gregarious.
Though the film is more than two hours long, and the cast is expansive, the impassioned electricity between Hoffman and Phoenix that make “The Master” a film not only on par with Anderson’s most-lauded works (“There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia”) but one that may exceed them in terms of technical flourish and emotional dexterity.
In a central scene, the two face off through an exchange of question and answer. The music, a collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, heightens the stakes with a jarring syncopation. Their eyes meet, Phoenix’s face contorts as Hoffman pummels him with his drill: “What’s your name? Don’t blink. Have you ever had intercourse with a member of your family?” The camera zooms increasingly closer on both parties as Phoenix physically struggles to keep his eyes open and Hoffman grows ever-more authoritarian. This a standoff. Then, Phoenix farts. It’s simultaneous low-brow and profound.
There is an inherent conflict in these two characters and within this movie — an internal and external divide. Where Phoenix plays Freddie as a primitive everyman, bounded by booze and driven by naive forces (i.e., sexual desire, the thrill of the fight), Hoffman plays Dodd as the civilized superior. Who is the victor or who is the loser does not matter. More than Anderson’s other films or any other film released this year thus far, “The Master” manages to intrigue, disgust, frustrate and enlighten with the merest whisper or the most minute movement.