In the 16 years since his debut, Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson has evolved into what many consider the leading American filmmaker of his generation. But unlike the other Anderson — Wes — or, say, Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson has built his case with a stylistically diverse filmography. The lean crime film Hard Eight gave way to the aesthetically (and in other ways) promiscuous Boogie Nights, which led to the operatic Magnolia, then the minor-key Punch-Drunk Love, and finally the epic, would-be Great American Film, There Will Be Blood.
The Master, inspired by but not directly about the origins of Scientology, marks the first time Anderson has done consecutive films in the same key. The similarities between There Will Be Blood and The Master are many: period-piece Americana; two actors at the center (though Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman here are a closer match than Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood); a percussive, at times dissonant score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood; the role of religion/spirituality in American life; a climactic confrontation in an imposing interior.
The Master is, similarly, a big, impressive film, a work of real cinema — shot on 70mm film stock — whose aesthetic majesty towers over most competing product. But it's ultimately a more difficult film. Or, to be less charitable, a less fully realized one.
It's most captivating in its opening act, which probably constitutes the biggest, boldest filmmaking of a so-far lackluster year. This section follows Freddie Quell (Phoenix) from a homosocial (at least) sailor-boy beach outing in the waning days of World War II through a troubled return to the homefront. Fidgety, sexually compulsive, alcoholic Freddie lands a job as a department store photographer that rhymes with Dana Andrews' soda jerk job in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, still the greatest of returning-soldier dramas. And Anderson's beautiful, subtle tracking shots in two scenes at the department store are matched by his staging of a later incident where a now itinerant Freddie is chased from a cabbage harvesting job after poisoning a coworker with his home brew, culminating in a great long-distance introductory shot of Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, seen in the background dancing on board a yacht as Freddie shuffles along the pier above him.
As these two protagonists meet and the film shifts into its second act, the filmmaking becomes less flamboyant, the scenes become tighter, and the focus is more on the actors. And, as the film segues into its apparent core story, it becomes much more difficult to pin down.
Dodd — referred to by family and followers simply as "Master" — is a writer at the head of a pseudo-scientific cult whose ideas are modeled on Dianetics, the L. Ron Hubbard hooey that later evolved into Scientology, and he brings Freddie into his orbit as both an assistant and patient.
It's at this point that the similarity to There Will Be Blood might be misleading, because The Master finally feels more like a character study — of Phoenix's Freddie — than a state of America cultural meditation. While Anderson makes it clear enough that Dodd is a charlatan, the film is not quite the takedown of Scientology that many might expect/hope. Freddie submits to Dodd's "process" — the first scene of which is a riveting actors' showcase, a later version is tedious — but despite Dodd's proclamation that "You are spirit, not beast," Freddie proves a failed candidate, following his urges — for women, drink, drift — rather than conquering or controlling them. On one viewing at least, it's difficult to determine what to make of that.
But if these more constricted final sections have a cinematic focus to match the opening section's opulence, it's a gaunt, wiry Phoenix, often depicted in close-up. Anderson's camera lingers on the landscape of Phoenix's face, which seems sculpted — graying around the edges, darkened eyes, deep crevices across his forehead and descending from nose to mouth. The theatrical bent of Hoffman's acting is well-suited to Dodd, whose whole life seems to be performance. But Phoenix is the real show. This is Phoenix's return to film after the debacle of 2010's fake doc I'm Still Here, and he's a thrilling presence at the center of a work that feels just out of reach.
Opening Friday, September 21st
Ridgeway Four and Studio on the Square