Don't expect a specific rebuke to L. Ron Hubbard in The Master, P.T. Anderson's bewilderingly exciting new film. South Park and Steven Soderbergh's 1996 Schizopolis are closer to direct kicking ass and naming names.
Anderson says that The Master turned out to be more of a defense of Scientology than he expected. Occasionally, highly tolerant people will argue that the church may be bad sci-fi, but at least it's a discipline for extremely out-of-control people. And there is something of that argument in The Master.
Anderson's most accomplished film to date tells of the partnership between a shell-shocked Navy vet of 1950 named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and a dapper, bigger-than-life fraud, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Anderson's vaunted use of 70mm gives you the expectation of visual splashiness. The format shows its stuff in a magic-hour cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge, a motorcycle race on a desert playa and Freddie's escape from a group of angry Salinas farmworkers across corrugated rows that go straight to the horizon.
The 70mm's real purpose is to display a brutal critique of willpower in the climax. That's when the Olmec head of Hoffman—a skull bigger than that of the Great and Powerful Oz—lays down his own law, through the code of a late-1940s novelty song.
The Master begins and ends with the mastered one. Freddie is one of a beach full of sailors out of a Paul Cadmus painting, mixing Rheingold and coconut milk right from his perch in the tree. Later, Freddie teaches his shipmates how to drink the alcohol out of a bomb-guidance system. (The concept may look puzzling, but it happened; the Soviets did this quite a bit.)
During his rambles, Freddie stows away on Dodd's yacht. In his grand, self-amused and patronizing way, this fraud likes Freddie's company. Underneath, Dodd sees this lumpenprole as the perfect subject for experiments, a man to be broken and remade.
At a compound in Philadelphia, the "writer/adventurer/nuclear physicist" conducts quasi-psychiatric sessions with the help of his pregnant wife, played by an impressive Amy Adams, showing how much eroticism there can be in frost and poisonous disappointment. Dodd's new crusade—the Cause—develops as his family and entourage head west.
Anderson keeps you wrong-footed, dropping you into unexpected scenes, locations and times. The movie rattles you, keeps you feeling put-off and slightly kidnapped. The improvised acting doesn't start on the beats you expect. This may be part of The Master's sympathy for Freddie—Anderson seems to view this self-proclaimed master through a disordered state of mind.
Anderson has done this before. He's not the kind of moviemaker who does films that add up neatly. Sometimes, he sanctions repetitious wheel-spinning from his actors, as in the improv by Daniel Day-Lewis in the last 20 minutes of There Will Be Blood. And we get glimpses of characters who surely had more to do in some other, unseen variation of this film. Laura Dern, for example, gets little as a society dame who is allied with Dodd.
Dodd might be as much a salute to Orson Welles. It's there in the mountebankism, the stature and the organlike voice. Hoffman's Dodd meets a match in forcefulness in Phoenix's kaleidoscopic acting. It's as unpredictable a performance as we've seen in the movies. Phoenix is very original, even as he shows facets that recall the best of Brando, Connery and Robert Ryan.
Just as The Godfather spoke to the inner despair of the compromised businessman—it was Arthur Miller with guns—The Master is clearly more than a particularly weird buddy movie. Anderson does include some straight-faced mockery of the paranoia of cults; Dodd makes his friendly lab-Rhesus Freddie swear he's not actually an agent of extraterrestrials.
What's underneath, however, is about as funny as a malignant virus. Dodd's stirring of Freddie's soft brains heralds bigger things: the rise of the intelligence apparatus, the think-tank, Cointelpro, the dawn of unchecked ruthlessness, the lies of World War II furthered by new means.
The bigger picture looms like Hoffman's screen-filling head, demanding obedience in sickeningly insinuating tones. The voice echoes against the background of postwar America, a nation about to get gigantic.
137 MIN R