Six films into his career, it’s clear that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitions outstrip those of almost all of his American contemporaries. His films are serious, dense, precisely executed, and meticulously conceived. His last work, There Will Be Blood, found those ambitions reaching a new plateau, combining larger-than-life performances with a clear thematic throughline that grounded it even at its wildest. The Master, on the other hand, while being even grander in scope, is an ungainly beast of a thing, a vast constellation of duelling themes, ambiguous characterization, and seemingly infinite interpretations. That means it feels much less immediate and forceful than its predecessor, but it also allows Anderson to exploit his gifts in new and bracing ways.
The Master opens very near the end of WWII. Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that rivals Daniel Day-Lewis in Blood for nervy energy, stars as Navy man Freddie Quell, a raging alcoholic and creature of pure impulse. After the war, Quell ambles from one job to another, from mall photographer to farm laborer, leaving for the next whenever his behavior necessitates it; this goes on until early 1950. That’s when, in one of his many drunken sojourns (invariably fueled by prodigious amounts of homemade booze), he sneaks onto a boat that happens to be carrying members of The Cause, a cult spearheaded by a phony multi-hyphenate named Lancaster Dodd (a mustachioed Philip Seymour Hoffman). Intrigued by Quell’s “animal” nature, and deeply besotted with the elixir he carries around in his pocket flask, Dodd takes Quell in as a sort of protege and test subject, hoping that by “curing” Quell of his many defects he can validate his theories of past lives, human nature, and utopian possibility.
Though the film is almost unfailingly linear, The Master confounds early and often, immediately immersing us the superficially opposed mindsets of two deeply flawed individuals. Quell is a restless, difficult man, haunted by profound traumas endured at every stage of life, not to mention the lingering heartbreak of the girl he left behind when he went to war. Ambling from one dim opportunity to another, he seems destined to live a solitary existence. Dodd, on the other hand, has surrounded himself with an endlessly adoring, fiercely defensive entourage of family members and devotees, particularly his wife Peggy (an endlessly surprising Amy Adams), who may be a more fervent believer in Dodd’s writings than Dodd himself. In his attempts to bring Quell into the fold, Dodd subjects him to a long series of psychological tests. Some reveal the hidden sources of pain that seem to inform every aspect of his comportment, others merely serve to agitate him. Quell and Dodd are akin to duelling ideologies, both so extreme that they occasionally reveal a sort of poisonous sympathy.
Much as Blood adopted the qualities of Daniel Plainview in its tone and structure – shot through with anxiety, barrelling along with steamroller intensity – The Master‘s distended feel and rambling sense of pacing is akin to spending an afternoon trying to parse the ravings of a madman – if not several madmen. Supporting characters come and go, revealing hidden motives and points of view, before being rendered inconsequential. Fantasies bleed into reality. Low humor, usually smuggled in by Quell, worms its way uncomfortably into many scenes. Sex seems to lurk just under the surface nearly constantly. Dodd’s many tests become marathons of inane repetition, then end arbitrarily.
For all of the deliberate obfuscation of clearly legible meaning and the many possible philosophical and sociological points of interest to draw upon, what’s clear is that Anderson’s technical acuity and razor-sharp writing haven’t diminished one bit. Every frame, every slow tilt, and crane, is impeccably calculated, and Anderson’s attention to period detail – particularly in a brief but breathtaking montage of Quell’s photographic subjects early in the film – is unfailingly impressive. His newfound partnership with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who also scored Blood, results in a less showy accompaniment this time around, but its shifting percussion and alternately dissonant and fragrant melodies are suitably versatile. What The Master lacks in immediacy – no one will be leaving the film eager to parrot its dialogue – it may well make up for with its surplus of ideas and its gorgeous evocation of being irrevocably lost.