(MA, 137 minutes.) Opens Thursday. ★★★☆
As Freddie Quell, the perpetually edgy and self-destructive soul at the centre of Paul Thomas Anderson's confounding new film, The Master, Joaquin Phoenix keeps his head tilted back and speaks as though his mouth is clogged; neither the angles of his lined face nor the sounds that emanate from it are close to familiar. Freddie, a World War II veteran, can't find a minute's peace in his own body, and Phoenix - unleashed from semi-retirement - inhabits the role with astounding fidelity.
The Master - Clip
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The Master - Clip
A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future.
The only person who believes they can help Freddie, whether out of arrogance or the recognition of his own suppressed desires, is Lancaster Dodd, a charming, if self-important, orator who has his own belief system titled The Cause. Lancaster is played with pomp and precision by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and between them, the characters represent the two spheres of screen acting from the movie's setting of the early 1950s: the guttural, naturalistic Freddie could be Marlon Brando, while the classically refined Lancaster recalls Orson Welles.
The comparison is worth noting not only because Phoenix and Hoffman craft a fascinating interaction around which the movie revolves, but also because the psychological interior of The Master is rich with such theories, even if they refuse to provide a gateway to understanding the picture. This is Anderson's sixth feature since he made his debut with Hard Eight in 1996 - and it's his most obtuse.
The Master, which comes with a prominent score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, doesn't feel incomplete, but it exists in a way only Anderson can fully comprehend. ''The will of one man is a cult,'' a doubter tells Lancaster at a party thrown in his honour by a wealthy devotee, but that could also apply to a filmmaker as sure of himself as Anderson.
As with 1997's Boogie Nights and 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, The Master features a lone protagonist who is drawn to an unconventional family structure.
The opening scenes, brief and telling, have a vexing, cumulative power as the end of WWII brings no peace to Freddie, who desires alcohol and sex and satisfies the former with home brew even as he fails miserably at the latter. By the time he stows away on a boat with Lancaster and his court, he can barely function in society.
Much has been speculated about the resemblance Lancaster and The Cause bear to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and the connection is obvious and largely irrelevant. Anderson is not interested in how a cult takes root, and he rightly doesn't bother examining the validity of The Cause's doctrines, which are serious mumbo-jumbo. He's preoccupied by what Lancaster can do with Freddie - questionable methods and all - and their dynamic is akin to trainer and animal.
Freddie initially impresses Lancaster - whose acolytes address him as ''the Master'' - with a home-made concoction (step one: strain paint thinner through bread), but despite a series of long and rigorous sessions across the years and various locales, during which Lancaster drills Freddie and uses against him his own recollections of a girl (Madisen Beaty) he abandoned as a young man, the subject doesn't fundamentally change.
The best measure to their bond is how it bothers Lancaster's virulently loyal younger wife, Peggy, who tries to steer her husband as much as she serves him. Amy Adams can convey civility with chilling exactness and her character tries to persuade both men to serve The Cause and its First family. Peggy recalls Daniel Day-Lewis' obsessive Daniel Plainview from Anderson's 2007 release There Will Be Blood, and this movie could have done with more of her steely-eyed will.
What's undeniable is that Anderson, as a writer and director, is a wonderfully untoward alternative historian, skilled at evoking an unlikely time and place, whether it's the Los Angeles porn business of the early 1980s or the emotionally scarred postwar life of three decades earlier. If There Will Be Blood explored the US relationship with commerce, The Master does the same with faith.
The film's flaws never feel distinct from its successes, and for all its mix of repetition and sudden explosive bursts of emotion, The Master is a defiant, cohesive whole united by the warm, detailed, 65-millimetre cinematography that makes the 1950s feel like one of the past lives Lancaster coaxes his followers to dredge up. It drags a touch in the middle, and the final scene as epilogue - an Anderson staple - is unduly perplexing, but the movie exerts an undeniable hold. It's difficult not to believe.