Spiritual adventure … Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) as Lancaster Dodd in The Master.
There's a lot to love in The Master, starting with the director Paul Thomas Anderson's talent for time travel.
The film is set in the US in the years following World War II and the era's customs, fashions and ambience are observed with an exactitude that puts it in the Mad Men class. But the atmosphere is distinctly different. While Mad Men casts a knowing eye on the period's moral hazards and hypocrisies, Anderson sees it as a time of unfulfilled promise and unresolved fears. He's a fabulist and there's a hallucinatory air to his cryptic and beautiful opening sequences - which is hardly surprising since we're experiencing them in the company of Freddie Quell, a former naval officer who has returned from the war an alcoholic. An ingenious drinker, he has perfected his own potentially lethal home brew, with paint thinner as an optional ingredient.
Freddie is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who hasn't made a film since the mock-documentary I'm Still Here, which he did with his friend Casey Affleck in 2010. Launched at the Venice Film Festival, it purported to announce Phoenix's retirement from acting to become a rapper. It turned out to be a hoax so elaborate that it made you wonder if its main premise wasn't true after all. If he was bored enough to perpetrate this prank, maybe he really was ready to give up the screen. But no, he's back, displaying all his usual intensity - though perhaps Freddie wasn't such a stretch. There are strong similarities between the character and the perpetually stoned version of himself that Phoenix presented in the mock-doc.
Freddie was Anderson's starting point for The Master. The director has said he wanted Freddie to embody the neuroses of so many former servicemen who returned home feeling too restless to settle back into their old routines. But where to take him and his anxieties? If they were going to inspire a film, Freddie needed relationships beyond the one he enjoyed with the bottle. The solution began to take form when Anderson grew interested in what he calls the ''spiritual adventurism'' that flourished in 1950s US. Scientology was the most notorious result of all this. So Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic evangelist who recruits Freddie to his sect, The Cause, has inevitably been likened to L. Ron Hubbard.
Freddie meets Lancaster when he is at his most desperate. We've already witnessed his rapid unravelling on his return to civilian life. The highlight comes during an elegantly staged sequence in a Los Angeles department store in which he destroys his prospects as the store photographer by picking a fight with a customer. The scuffle and its prelude are recorded step by agonising step as pretension crumbles into bumbling farce.
When we next pick up Freddie, he is an itinerant farm labourer, but once again he has to make his getaway. This time, he poisons a co-worker with his home brew.
Freddie fetches up on San Francisco wharf where Lancaster and his family are aboard a large motor yacht, celebrating a wedding with other members of The Cause. For the occasion, Anderson obtained the presidential yacht once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the sequence ends with the vessel heading out into the bay like a floating mirage. Freddie is aboard, a stowaway, and as the luxury boat glides towards the Golden Gate Bridge, it seems like a vision of infinite possibility.
Lancaster takes to Freddie immediately, even going so far as to sample his home brew. You're never quite sure why. Hoffman is an expert at evoking characters who like to cultivate an air of mystery and he leaves plenty of room to make up your own mind about what he sees in Freddie. Is he a challenge to his powers of persuasion, a surrogate son, or someone who appeals to his own suppressed taste for anarchy? You could safely bet on all three. Freddie himself gets nowhere in his efforts to find out. Nonetheless, he is hooked by Lancaster and the movement - after a fashion. He becomes their in-house rebel, indulged by Lancaster as a wayward surrogate son. Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), doesn't approve. Adams, who is usually cast for her ability to convey a sweet-natured exuberance, is playing a Madame Machiavelli this time and she is very good at it.
But there is trouble with Anderson's script, which is vainly searching for a framework to pull its constituent bits and pieces together. We're offered tantalising glimpses of the politics of The Cause and its reliance on a succession of wealthy patrons. And Dodd's flashes of megalomania supply more than enough evidence to put him alongside other outsize Anderson creations, such as Tom Cruise's evangelist in Magnolia (1999) and Daniel Day-Lewis's oil man in There Will Be Blood (2007), but they're not taking us anywhere. It's Freddie's point of view we're getting, and acuity is not among his strengths. He works by instinct, impression and longings that are growing vaguer by the minute.
It feels as if Anderson has only belatedly realised what a powerful creation he has in Lancaster and can find no way to capitalise on the discovery. He is too busy babysitting Freddie, whose dilemmas, poignant as they may be, never supply the climax the script needs. When its tensions should explode into conflict, they dissolve into sadness and regret.
So it remains a film of great beauty with a series of wonderful moments and two outstanding performances. Oscar beckons.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated MA, 137 minutes