THE MASTER, (MA) General (137 minutes). ★★★★
FIRST things first: it should be clear right away that The Master is no more ''about'' Scientology than Citizen Kane is about yellow journalism. Still, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has made no secret of drawing inspiration from the life and work of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard - here renamed ''Lancaster Dodd'' and played with an abject overflow of Santa Claus benevolence by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose twinkling pale-blue piggy eyes seem occasionally frozen in private terror.
The Master - Clip
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The Master - Clip
A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future.
It's a performance to make your skin crawl: hard to watch, impossible to forget. But Hoffman is matched, or outdone, by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who has trouble adjusting to peacetime - that's putting it mildly - and spends the late 1940s lurching from one job to another.
One night, Freddie stumbles drunkenly on to a yacht and wakes to find himself part of the entourage of Dodd and his outwardly demure wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who are busily recruiting followers for ''The Cause''. The connection that sparks between the two men is immediate yet ineffable: something like the relationship between artist and muse, or between Frankenstein and his monster.
Each is the other's shadow self. Where Dodd is pure ham, Freddie shows a near-autistic inability to mask the warring forces within him behind a viable persona. His face heavily creased, his lips curled in an expression between a snigger and a sneer, Freddie has a callow, teenage quality, but also an adult knowledge of what it means to damage and be damaged in turn.
Anderson is an intensely dramatic filmmaker: every scene portrays some kind of power struggle, every aspect of his style keeps us on edge. Cuts are abrupt and disorienting: image and sound are often purposefully mismatched, whether we're listening to 1940s dance tunes or to Jonny Greenwood's near-atonal score. The use of 70-millimetre film lends a hallucinatory clarity to visual details, from the bristles on Dodd's moustache to the cabbages that Freddie harvests as if he were lopping the heads off the Japanese.
The world seems blindingly vivid, awaiting the revelation that might make sense of it all.
In the tradition of Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese, Anderson is a grand entertainer who typically makes films about hollow men: liars, bullies, buffoons. He's anything but a social realist; nor is he much interested in history as anything more than a backdrop for the clash of personalities bent on forcing reality to fit their needs.
Though Punch-Drunk Love (2002) remains Anderson's only outright comedy, there's always a slapstick side to his depiction of men flailing helplessly as if trapped in an infernal machine. The ''processing'' routines Dodd imposes on his disciples suggest exercises out of avant-garde theatre; what Anderson finds most sympathetic in Scientology is the understanding of people as malfunctioning mechanisms, repeating the same destructive patterns over and over.
Wildly ambitious yet oddly threadbare, The Master almost deliberately courts failure: its eccentric musical form - a thwarted climax, a long diminuendo - accords with Anderson's characteristic vision of sexuality, in particular, as almost inevitably solipsistic, blocked, ashamed. There are hints that we might be watching a strangled queer romance: a cornerstone of Dodd's theology is belief in reincarnation, which offers the opportunity to take on a different personality and perhaps a different gender.
''We rise far above that crowd,'' Dodd likes to say, speaking of humanity's relation to the animal kingdom. This is an empty boast (an Anderson speciality), but one that's echoed frequently by Freddie's violent efforts to transcend his physical circumstances, banging into walls or tearing up a prison cell.
At core, Anderson's work is all about this yearning for release from the pain and humiliation of being a person. Though he knows the cause is hopeless, he can't help but sympathise: as cruelly as he treats his blundering characters, he also views them with a rueful kind of love.