As long as a year before it finally hit screens, the buzz surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth movie, The Master, was that it would be a veiled exposé/attack on Scientology, but the film itself turns out to be far less interested in any specific cult or religion than in exploring mankind's eternal struggle between faith and skepticism.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a shell-shocked WWII vet prone to violent outbursts, who spends most of his time looking for sex, drifting from job to job, and making remarkably potent moonshine from seemingly whatever material he has on hand. All the while, his rage is brimming just under the surface, ready to boil over into a physical confrontation for any reason -- or even no reason at all.
One night he sneaks onto a yacht owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described writer, scientist, and "inquisitive man" who takes an unexpected liking to the stowaway, in no small part because of Freddie's hooch-making prowess. Lancaster senses a lost soul in the former soldier and soon invites him to stay on the yacht, becoming part of the religion that Lancaster runs with the help of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and children.
The scenes between these two acting heavyweights are spellbinding. Phoenix seizes on his character's constant discomfort -- when Freddie stands he puts his hands on his hips in such a way that his elbows jut out awkwardly, and when he does smile it tends to look more threatening than peaceful. He also maintains an unrelenting feral intensity that contrasts beautifully with Hoffman's performance, because the PTA regular plays Lancaster as a cool and confident leader whose calm is more assuring than frightening -- even though what he's espousing occasionally sounds insane.
It turns out that the organization the Dodds have created involves asking personal questions of their members, since they believe that emotional wounds can be carried on for lifetime after lifetime, and these painful memories are exposed through a series of questionnaires. The scene when Freddie first agrees to answer the questions turns out to be one of Phoenix, Anderson, and Hoffman's finest achievements -- it's an exquisitely written sequence, and it's amazing to watch the shell that we've seen Freddie construct get cracked open by Lancaster's quiet insistence.
Anderson had to be aware that he had struck gold on the page with all of the scenes between his two lead characters. However, what's missing is a sense of momentum, of a story moving forward. The relationship between these two men may change over time, with Lancaster feeling protective -- or possibly controlling -- of Freddie, and Freddie inevitably blowing up at fellow members or those who question the Dodds. But there's a sameness to the action, even though the movie remains captivating because of the stellar acting and scintillating dialogue.
In addition, the film is so beautifully photographed that you don't want to look away from the screen. Working for the first time with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. -- who shot Tetro and several other recent pictures by Francis Ford Coppola -- Anderson gives us startlingly beautiful images of water in the wake of a boat and Freddie's nervous eyes peeking under his helmet as he awaits deployment, but this is a film that comes loaded with close-ups. We get lost in the nooks and crannies of the actors' faces; Lancaster's facial hair practically becomes hypnotic as he speaks.
The Master feels like the most open-ended of Paul Thomas Anderson's films so far. The concept of constructing a family is also less prominent here than in his previous work: Freddie isn't necessarily looking to have people around him, but instead is just floating -- or rather drinking and fighting and screwing -- his way through life no matter what gets thrown in his path. So we're left to consider the themes the movie returns to over and over, as concepts of faith and friendship are questioned without answers being provided. You might expect an epic, but in fact The Master is smaller. It's a meditation rather than a grand statement from one of our very best filmmakers.