Raised on the fringes of show business in the San Fernando Valley (as sensitive to spiritual trends as to earthquakes), the conspicuously passionate Paul Thomas Anderson clearly views cults from multiple vantages. From one angle, he really, really likes them: They’re inclusive, they impart a sense of family more strongly than many biological families, and they speak to a deep and possibly inbred need to be led by a strong father. From the other, those daddies can turn out to be more ragingly infantile than their sons. They can overwhelm their children’s wills, swallow them up — drink their milkshakes.
Anderson’s latest and most glacial drama, The Master, is a piece of stark, often abrasive American mythmaking. The title character — the father figure — is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), allegedlyreportedlysaidtobe modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, the weasel words (theirs and mine) added to ward off some of the most litigious disciples in human history. The surrogate son is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a spectacularly unstable naval veteran of World War II, in which he killed many Japanese soldiers and ended up an animalistic cauldron of lust and addiction. (He makes his own potent hooch.) The movie centers on the Dodd-Freddie dance, the pull and push of titanic wills. Crazy, wayward Freddie needs to be led, but something in him resists committing his life to what is here called “the Cause.” Subjugation is intolerable, but absolute freedom is probably damnable. And this is the sort of movie in which there’s no livable middle ground.
In the decade and a half since his dark but rambunctious ensemble dramas Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson has gone from a protégé of Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme to a Kubrickian formalist. He gives his actors more room than Kubrick did — you can’t imagine he’d make them do 60, 70, 80 takes to get precisely the readings he wants. But he has become a Very Important Director, a “painter of light.” Anderson shunned digital video and shot The Master on rare 65‑mm film stock. (The director of photography is Mihai Malaimare Jr.) The dark shadows are layered, and the low-angle close-ups of the film’s main characters have a Rushmore-like immensity. A pivotal scene on a dry lake bed offers vistas — and optical illusions — that recall Lawrence of Arabia. (They’re optical allusions.) This is the fifties before the prefab houses and office buildings went up, in which Dodd and his followers seem to offer the best hope of stability in a transient, valueless world.
Deftly, elegantly, Anderson nails the allure of the Dodd/Hubbard belief system. (The film is meant to be set before Hubbard turned Scientology into a religion, presumably to avoid paying taxes.) With its pointed “processing” (read “auditing”), the Cause is less indirect, more vigorously masculine and confrontational than psychotherapy, although it similarly plumbs the unconscious for repressed traumas. In this case, though, there’s a kind of Buddhist-like oversoul cast in sci-fi terms. Dodd says humans’ spirits have lived for trillions (yes, trillions) of years and that their bodies are just vessels. “Processing” rids them of the animal emotions that keep the spirit encased. It’s snake oil, but you can see the holes it plugs. This Dodd is in the great American tradition of flimflam visionaries — men so in love with their own spiels that they forget they’re bullshitting.
Anderson keeps the Master emotionally remote, viewing him largely through the eyes of Freddie, while Hoffman never telegraphs Dodd’s duplicity. It’s an admirably nuanced performance. His Dodd cultivates a Brahmin-esque stillness, erupting only once or twice (“Pigfuck!!!!”) when challenged by skeptics. He’s a fascinating mix of donnishness and childishness, given to boozing and engaging in horseplay with his flock, but with a sharp eye for their anti-human impulses. When Freddie farts and giggles during processing, Dodd says, “Silly, silly animal,” and then gives his blessing to laughter — “even if it is the sound of an animal.”
The processing scenes with Freddie are the movie’s centerpieces, the key to their power. Dodd’s practice of repeating a question — even the most basic question — over and over breaks down his subject’s façade of control and induces a sort of hypnosis. Freddie’s trauma — at least in this particular life, there being many more of them over the last trillions of years — is his yearning, amorphous relationship with a teenage girl, Doris (Madisen Beaty), seen in flashbacks in the course of the session. She has written this soldier boy letters (ostensibly at the behest of the government), and they clearly take root — but he can’t bring himself to keep in touch amid the carnage of war. Dodd — like Hubbard, reportedly — is a gifted hypnotist, and it’s no wonder his followers felt cleansed after particularly grueling sessions. I would and you would, although not because the aliens have left our bodies.
What’s eating Phoenix’s Freddie is more difficult to read, since the actor is a mess from his first scenes and never attains enough equilibrium to make you think he’s capable of settling down. The performance is a tantalizing collection of tics — other actors’ tics. He reminded me of so many people in the course of The Master, from Robin Williams’s Popeye (the words dribble from one corner of his mouth) to John Belushi’s Brando to Robert De Niro if he were ever cast as W. C. Fields. Phoenix doesn’t do anything halfway, signaling the kind of ferocious inner pain that puts him out of reach when we need him to be our way in. You get the impression of an actor suffering so deeply for his art that the suffering upstages the art. He can be thrilling, though: You never know what he’ll do next — or whom he’ll channel.
The Master is austere, unforgiving. While Anderson paints with light, composer Jonny Greenwood is painting with sound — electrified strings, atonal horns, reworkings of Penderecki and Bartók. (Even the soundtrack’s old standards like “No Other Love” and “You Go to My Head” have a chill.) As Dodd’s pregnant wife, Amy Adams presses her lips together and simmers, exhorting him to attack his attackers and scolding Freddie for his drunkenness. Laura Dern plays a wealthy Philadelphian woman called Helen Sullivan who seems meant to evoke Helen O’Brien, one of Hubbard’s first disciples to go public when she sensed that his core principles were opportunistically malleable. It’s disappointing that few of the others in the large ensemble make much of an impression, although blond, open-faced Jesse Plemons — who loomed so large as the homicidal Todd in the season’s last Breaking Bad episodes — can’t help but get himself noticed as Dodd’s son.
If I seem cool, it might be because I came in hoping for the same level of blood-and-thunder as in the Evangelical scenes of There Will Be Blood, whereas The Master is a cerebral experience. But Anderson has gone about exploring fundamental tensions in the American character with more discipline than I once thought him capable — among them our lip service to individualism versus our sheeplike gullibility, the contradiction generally resolved with drugs and alcohol and a reversion to adolescent irresponsibility. Anderson is a romantic who has earned his nihilism. He clarifies nothing, but leaves us brooding on our own confusion.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
The Weinstein Company. R.
This article originally appeared in the September 17, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.