In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, there is no talk of higher powers, no lingering on words handed down by deities. The religious leader here is “a man—a hopelessly inquisitive man,” Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his followers are those who have strayed from the path.
Strays are guided back through time travel. Our souls, Dodd explains, record everything that happens in our past lives, which can go back hundreds, even trillions, of years. (Despite one skeptical character noting that science suggests earth is at most only a few billion years old.) Bad behavior, plaguing thoughts, addiction all stem from some trauma in a previous life. So the therapy—the journey home—involves exploring the recollections of incarnations past through, as Dodd tells curious partygoers, a reverse hypnosis—an awakening. The process, he claims, can be used to improve mental health and even cure certain “forms of Leukemia”.
The most wayward of his flock? Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, an able-bodied seaman, now a jobless drifter who smuggles himself onto Dodd’s ship, where the educated and inquisitive man is hard at work on his second spiritual tome. Quell becomes Dodd’s “guinea pig and protégé”. He submits the man to official processing, and in a brilliant interview scene—an interrogation, really, with rapid-fire questions about his past and the thoughts that consume him—I am reminded of the landmark moment from Steve McQueen’s Hunger, one continuous 16-minute scene between Bobby Sands and Father Moran. The processing scene in The Master is just as gripping, every bit as impressive. Dodd asks Quell questions that he must answer quickly and without blinking, lest they begin again. The interaction plays like torture—both for the character and the actor Phoenix—like waterboarding, but made more affecting and intimate because Quell engages willingly. He realizes, perhaps, that he is a soldier in desperate need of a commanding officer.
But Dodd strays, too. And his wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams), here a driven Lady Macbeth character, must keep him on-message when he wanders from his primary goal—aggressively promoting “The Cause”—to explore the strange man that he has become enamored by. Quell is charming in his animal nature, in his drifterdom, especially to someone as learned as Dodd. Quell is pure id: he fights and fucks and abuses all manner of substances, ingesting them in the form of “potions”, as Dodd affectionately calls them, a mix of whatever toxin he can find—anything from paint thinner and medicinal elixir to crushed aspirin and film developing solution.
The performances are stellar, and the scenes develop and gestate long enough to give the actors suitable scenery to chew. But Phoenix is jaw-dropping here, on the same level and as devastating as Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood. He stands awkwardly with his hands on his hips, thumbs facing front, contorting his body as if even his skeleton is too constricting for the free spirit. Phoenix molds Quell with facial tics and grotesque asymmetry, recalling Joe Cocker belting “With a Little Help From My Friends”, with one eye half-closed, fits of laughter at odd times, and an exaggeration of his marked lip. In his constant discomfort and with his severe features, Quell sometimes looks like a weathered stone gargoyle.
Anderson is obsessed with the journeys of great and powerful men. Imprisoned men, caged and oppressed by their ambition or rage or purpose. Quell carries his prison with him, unable to escape the feeling of being tied down, unliberated, obligated, made uneasy by the weight of expectation. Dodd seems to think that “The Cause” can free him from those feelings—caused by some event in his life billions of years ago—but again and again the heavy shackles of yet another institution hold him down to the point where he has no choice but to rebel.
Though the filmmaker calls this the story of a veteran after World War II, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with the early stages of Scientology. It is likely no coincidence that Hoffman resembles the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who was also highly educated, an author, and developed a similar process, Dianetics, to re-experience past life events. Both had wives named Mary Sue. Both were charismatic and committed con men.
The film is Anderson’s least narrative-driven, even less than Punch-Drunk Love, which is fitting considering the charge repeated against Dodd throughout The Master—that the whole thing is one big improvisation, that “he’s making it up as he goes along.” More than telling a traditional story, the filmmaker is world-building here. Unlike other writer/directors, who transplant fictional characters into our world, Anderson establishes a world that is entirely his own (sometimes a version of our own world, but his take for sure), fills it with characters and life, and presents it to us, where we are expected to sit and marvel from afar. And in The Master, Anderson presents us with a time period, the early 1950s, and sends these two competing characters on a collision course for one another. We watch not to see what happens next but to see how each will react in the moment. We watch to see the general and the soldier at war.
The decision of how we watch is up to us. I was fortunate enough to see the film in the finest resolution possible; it was filmed in 65mm, and Chicago’s Music Box Theatre worked with the distributor to screen the film projected to 70mm. It was one of the first and few screenings at that resolution, and the effect is mesmerizing. The wake trailing behind Dodd’s ship bubbles hypnotically. The tiny details of Quell’s expression pop. The presentation was a beautiful way to show the picture, so striking, so gorgeous, and with an of-era film aesthetic. If you have the opportunity to see The Master in the way it was filmed, do so. This isn’t 3D gimmickry or even IMAX decadence; this is like seeing a Rembrandt original in a world of reprints.
The Master opens September 21, 2012.
 Wes Anderson, I believe, does this for a completely different effect.
Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.