The Master may be a test. The new psychological drama from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson might be testing its audience in much the same way the film’s Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tests his acolytes.
The Master is Anderson’s sixth film, his first since 2007. Today, he may be the closest thing we have to Stanley Kubrick. Anderson pays incredible attention to detail, while taking his time to turn out striking visions that always demand attention, are visually arresting and are populated by conflicted characters.
The Master begins at the end of World War II, as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves the military only to fall adrift, doing little more than drinking and having various sexual escapades. Eventually, he lands on a ship that takes Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his devotees on what seems an endless cruise. Once ashore, Freddie stays with them and witnesses Dodd draw gullible weaklings into his mind-control silliness, which tests participants on their sincerity and willingness to submit to him.
During this first part, Anderson paints impressionistic portraits, giving short glimpses of Freddie’s destructive lifestyle, as well as gradually demonstrating how Freddie’s instability plays into Dodd’s manipulations. Simultaneously, Jonny Greenwood’s often eerie musical compositions complement the building portraits.
Master Dodd’s early 1950s cult draws obvious parallels to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology: Followers fawn at his feet while he babbles pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Anderson realizes this superficial personality defies belief but lets us know he shares the skepticism as Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie: “He’s making all this up as he goes along.”
After spending much of the movie as an reprobate, Freddie finally has an epiphany that turns him into a True Believer, a transformation that does not seem natural or important. And Dodd, for his part, never comes off as a fully drawn character, but remains unlikable and hard to spend much time around.
While the film includes a sprawling cast, evocative period costumes and an expansive story, Anderson never arrives at any striking conclusions beyond chronicling Freddie’s change. Daniel Day-Lewis garnered a Best Actor Oscar in Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, and this time, similar accolades may await Joaquin Phoenix, even though he delivers his dialogue through clenched teeth and spends much of the film acting mentally unbalanced.
But that’s his character, however unpleasant he may be.
Rated R, 137 minutes.