Viewers hoping for a juicy expose of the super-secretive Church of Scientology in "The Master" might want to adjust their expectations just a tad.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has acknowledged that the cult leader of the film's title - played with great bluster and bravado by Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of his longtime players - was inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. And certain key phrases and ideas that are tenets of the church do show up in the film. There's the notion that everything that shapes us is recorded from our earliest days, even in the womb, and that people can dig deep into their pasts - into past lives, even - to purge negative experiences and emotions and achieve a state of perfection.
"The Master" takes place in 1950 as Hoffman's character, the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, is releasing an important new book outlining his bold philosophy; that's the same year Hubbard published his worldwide best-seller, "Dianetics." And Amy Adams, as Dodd's true-believer wife, Peggy, makes this quietly forceful proclamation toward the end: "This is something you do for a billion years or not at all." It's a number that couldn't possibly be random, given the billion-year contract the most devoted Scientologists sign.
And yet, the church - or rather, "The Cause," as it's known here - emerges relatively unscathed. Dodd, whom his followers refer to as "Master," is commanding and calculating and sometimes even cruel, but the bond he forges with a wayward Joaquin Phoenix reveals his inquisitiveness, his generosity of spirit and a love that can't be defined, teetering as it does between the paternal and the homoerotic. Meanwhile, Phoenix's character, the troubled, volatile and often inebriated Freddie Quell, seems at his happiest once he's safely ensconced within the group. He's still a "scoundrel," as Dodd affectionately labels him upon their first meeting, but at least he's functioning in a society.
But "The Master" isn't interested in anything so clear-cut as joy vs. misery. It's about the way people's lives intersect, if only briefly and perhaps without a satisfying sense of closure. Anderson, long a master himself of technique and tone, has created a startling, stunningly gorgeous film shot in lushly vibrant 65mm, with powerful performances all around and impeccable production design. But it's also his most ambitious film yet - quite a feat following the sprawling "Magnolia" and the operatic "There Will Be Blood" - in that it's more impressionistic and less adherent to a tidy three-act structure.
If you like answers, you will feel frustrated. And yet, as fond of ambiguity as I usually am, I still felt a bit emotionally detached afterward. Wowed, for sure, but not exactly moved.
Still, "The Master" does grab you from the first image: an overhead shot of a deeply blue-green Pacific Ocean as it churns behind a ship, punctuated by the unsettling score from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (also the composer on "There Will Be Blood"), with its percussive knockings and staccato strings. We are on edge from the start, and Phoenix's presence magnifies that sensation. Hunched-over and mumbling, with an off-kilter sense of humor and a screwed-up mouth, Freddie is all impulse, and it's usually of an adolescent, sexual nature. In his first film since the 2010 performance-art stunt of "I'm Still Here," Phoenix once again digs deep to mine his character's inner torment and comes up with a mix of haunting quirks and tics.
Freddie wasn't entirely right before he left Lynn, Massachusetts, to fight in World War II, and Navy combat has only traumatized him further. After drifting from job to job - including a stint as a department-store photographer, which Anderson and frequent Francis Ford Coppola cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. depict in long, fluid, bravura takes - Freddie finds himself wandering onto a docked yacht that's the site of a lavish party. Turns out, Dodd has borrowed the vessel for his daughter's wedding, and everyone on board is sailing from San Francisco to New York. (The shot of the yacht gliding beneath the Golden Gate Bridge toward a vibrant setting sun is a beauty, and Anderson knows it, and he knows to hold it for a long time for maximum effect).
Dodd takes an instant liking to his stowaway and makes him his protege. Maybe he's fascinated by this young man's animalistic nature from a scientific perspective and wants to tame him. Or maybe he recognizes a kindred spirit; despite Dodd's mantras about not letting your emotions control you, he quickly snaps when questioned or crossed, and he's just as fond as Freddie is of the drink.
This sets up one of the film's most riveting scenes: Dodd records Freddie answering a series of questions ("informal processing," he calls it) which begins with the mundane and becomes increasingly probing. The repetition, and the rapid-fire give-and-take that starts out calmly and builds to a crescendo, has a mesmerizing musicality and it reveals painful, personal truths.
As Freddie insinuates himself within the highest echelons of The Cause and Dodd's own family, Peggy mistrusts him more and more. Adams has the least-showy part among the three leads but in some ways, she might just give the most impressive performance of all. Slowly, steadily, she reveals Peggy as the true brains and muscle of the operation. It's frightening, and it demonstrates yet another facet of Adams' great versatility.
Dodd's Cause aims to provide a path for a post-war America seeking direction, a sense of comfort and community for those who have figuratively (and, in Freddie's case, literally) been at sea. Or at least that's the gruel he's spoon-feeding the mixed-up masses. Anderson, in typically daring fashion, has no interest in assuaging anyone. And so although he's given us a rare jewel box of a film from a visual standpoint, the open-endedness it depicts ultimately resembles ordinary, everyday life.
"The Master," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Running time: 137 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.