The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s absurdly dense new period epic, was initially sold as a takedown of religion, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Lancaster Dodd, the enigmatic leader of a Scientology-like cult. The end product turns out to have little to say on the subject. One could presume Anderson’s friendship with Tom Cruise made him back off, but the more likely answer is that heavy thinking simply isn’t his bag. He’s an instinctual filmmaker who uses big ideas to fuel big cinematic moments and organizes his films eccentrically: He claimed to have based Magnolia ’s structure not on another film, but on The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
In that sense, Anderson is less like Lancaster than The Master’s actual protagonist, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix). Recently home from WWII, Freddie is a relentlessly horny and violently tempered drifter and boozer who mumbles out of the left side of his mouth and can mix refreshing if brutal cocktails from anything at hand. (Say, paint thinner—he’s the MacGyver of hooch.) Freddie has an innate hatred of the “proper life,” and if he can be locked down, by a job or a girl or a charismatic cult leader, it’s only for a spell. It’s during one of his aimless jags that he happens upon Lancaster, and what follows is part attempted brainwashing—with Lancaster trying to tame this animal, as per his religion’s language—and part love story. Lancaster is drawn to Freddie’s feral lifestyle, and the amount of time he hangs with his slovenly new bro enrages his killjoy wife (Amy Adams)—just like in You, Me and Dupree or Ted.
The impulsive, jagged way The Master has been constructed makes it relentlessly compelling, although sussing out its meaning proves dodgy. It could be read as a reflection on sex (Freddie) and religion (Lancaster) battling it out for the future of the country, at a time (post-war) when it was impressionable. But that seems reductive. It’s more rich and enjoyable anyway as an unpredictable narrative, as a film conceived cinematically—and in 70mm—and as one of those closed loop character studies, like Taxi Driver or Un Coeur en Hiver, where the protagonist refuses change. And it’s hugely rewarding as a showcase for Phoenix, who’s somehow more crazed and committed than he was in I’m Still Here.