An image recurs throughout The Master: a ship’s wake, white and blue water churning as the camera — really the mind’s eye of the dissolute Freddie Quell — stares not exactly into the past, but into the creation of the past. He fixates at the roil and the churn, staring at nothing rather than directly examine the choices and impulses that created him.

Freddie is an animal; or a sensualist, to be more generous. He does what he feels like doing, and what he feels is visible in every line of his face, and every glint of his wary, shaded eyes. He likes to drink, and he likes to fuck, and he likes to pretend that none of it really matters, and that his impulses have never cost him anything. As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix channels every bit of his own individual oddness and intensity to create a character that is whole, and unique. Phoenix is an incandescent screen presence.

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sixth feature film, is a portrait of Freddie as one half of a whole. It is not a conventional narrative. Such as it is, the plot is barely more than an outline. Designed with sublime attention to detail by regular David Lynch and Terrence Malick collaborator Jack Fisk; scored with nervy yet sweeping themes by Jonny Greenwood; and photographed with exquisite tenderness by Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master is the rare modern film that feels like the product of old studio craftsmanship.

In moments, Anderson’s new work can be maddening, dull, even vacuous. But subsequent moments can be quietly provocative as the film tries to understand friendships, and relationships that trade in power, and even the nature of faith. The tentative plot is a boon. Free of responsibilities to any standard story structure, Anderson’s characters can circle and dance around one another without concerns about resolving dangling threads. The Master is mesmerizing, and beautiful.

Long after that moment of roiling wake that repeats in Freddie’s mind, he’ll meet self-made philosopher Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). As an author Dodd is responsible for “the Cause,” a loose-knit group of semi-religious enthusiasts who subscribe to Dodd’s theories about self-actualization. Dodd wants everyone to stare into their past for real, and in doing so find their own truth as they validate his existence.

“You are so familiar to me,” Dodd says to Freddie during their first conversation. The puzzle of that familiarity is one of the superficial questions that drives Dodd’s probes into Freddie, and Anderson’s deeper probes into both characters. Is Freddie attractive to Dodd because his nature is precisely that which Dodd can easily control? Does he represent what Dodd had to give up in order to become the Master? Is he illustrative of a certain sort of freedom, or is his life an example of a “freedom as cage” nature — the nature of an animal — from which Dodd seeks to elevate mankind? Dodd’s power is obviously attractive to Freddie, whether because of his resemblance to Freddie’s own father, or the simple fact of Dodd’s ability to manipulate and control others.

Hoffman plays Dodd like the Uncle you always loved — genial, quick to make a joke, often ready to roll with a punch or take a swipe at a curve ball. But he can be feral, especially when put on the defensive. He keeps those teeth-baring moments to a minimum, and so preserves their power, and some of their ambiguity. Do his flashes of anger at skeptics of the Cause imply a lack of belief, on his own part, in the psychological shell game? That is, are his own doubts coming forth? Or is that anger just Dodd’s own Freddie flashing through to the present; a reversal of Dodd’s own methods of casting subjects back into their past in search of truth?

I’m asking a lot of questions here, which I realize, after the fact, is unconsciously an imitation of the film. This is not a movie that offers answers, though there are certain truths about the characters. Some of the truth about Dodd is revealed through his wife, played with a steely resilience by Amy Adams. There’s a suggestion that many of his methods come from her ways of dealing with his indulgences and indiscretions. There’s no question that Dodd, as his son tells Freddie, is making everything up as he goes along, and he seems to draw much of his own power from his wife.

In that respect, there’s no getting around the fact that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was an inspiration for Dodd. Anderson has spoken on the subject, and I’d imagine that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Scientology would see the Master as a reflection of Hubbard and his “church.” But the film doesn’t prioritize an examination or critique of Scientology; the focus is instead on the friendship and power play between Freddie and Dodd.

I mentioned questions about the nature of faith, and that does come up through the relation to Scientology. Freddie comes to believe in Dodd, and others in the Cause are fervent followers. Does it matter that Dodd’s philosophy is invented bullshit? We see the ways in which Dodd’s methods seem to help Freddie come to terms with some things in his past — though there is always the question of whether he’s lying about that past — and so do those ends justify Dodd’s methods? The Master is sympathetic to Dodd’s results, and forgiving of his actions.

One of the film’s most electric scenes takes place when Dodd is questioned by an outspoken skeptic, provoking some of Hoffman’s most intensely controlled rage. There are those who will agree with the skeptic, as the Cause is so obviously absurd. I found myself siding with Dodd, because of what he was able to inspire in people. If his methods seem ridiculous, why bother to tear him down? Why not leave those with their faith in him as a leader, and move on? Does the nature of this faith have to be an absolute? Common sense says “yes,” but the film is sometimes persuasive with the contrary argument.

As impressed as I am with the way Anderson lets his characters work, I can’t get over the design of the film. The Master is Anderson’s second film to employ production designer Jack Fisk, and it may be Fisk that brings Anderson’s most Malick-inspired tendencies to the fore. The film’s overture, a montage of Freddie’s Navy days, bears more than a passing kinship to moments in Malick’s The Thin Red Line. A sequence shortly after, when Freddie works as a department store portrait photographer, features one of the most subtly stunning sets I’ve seen in any recent film. Malaimare, Jr. employs washes of light when capturing much of the film, and the calm, penetrating gaze of the 70mm cinematography highlights the lead performances.

The work of Fisk and his crew creates a playground for Hoffman and Phoenix and the cast around them, and though the Scientology/”the Cause” angle adds some color to their relationship, The Master is really about the very genuine fondness the two have for one another. After Dodd’s shady actions provoke the police, the two men are reunited after a brief separation. Their action in that moment is shaded with the inequity of power that flows between them, but also with real love, to the light consternation of other Dodd followers. (“Why does he put up with this guy?” their posture asks.) And when a point of decision arrives for the unlikely couple, it is acted upon in an encounter that taps into a well of emotion that validates Anderson’s meandering, occasionally maddening magnum opus.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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