Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Annapurna Pictures, Ghoulardi Film Company
For decades, 20th century American showman-huckster P. T. Barnum has been quoted as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Apparently Barnum said no such thing, but hey, in our post-truth, no-fact-check era, who’s to care anymore, right?
Luckily, one moviemaker does still care, and it’s another P. T., writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose understanding of religion-fueled suckerism, mendacity and self-delusion — let alone of emotional emptiness and longing — runs wide and deep in his mesmerizing new film, The Master. Anderson’s leisurely, hypnotic, hallucinogenic and frustrating epic is set in the early ’50s and features Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd (if there’s a better character name in movies this year, let’s hear it), the opportunistic, self-invented founder and leader of The Cause, a cult devised to exploit the restless sense of dislocation, rage, frustration and emptiness roiling around in the aftermath of WWII. Clearly patterned on Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher.” He is also an effortlessly charming bamboozler, a Wizard of Oz/Prospero/Henry Higgins/Elmer Gantry into whose fold stumbles a violent, untamed, sexually conflicted drifter and navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Hoffman calls the hulking galoot a “silly animal” and declares, “You’ll be my guinea pig and protégé” while practically licking his chops in anticipation of the battle of wills to come.
Lupine, volatile and badly broken, Phoenix falls under the snake charmer spell of the nonsense-spewing charlatan, under the watchful eye of Hoffman’s steely, smiling wife, expertly played by Amy Adams without any Amy Adams-isms. Science, logic, proof are to be scoffed at, says the founder of The Cause. Whoa, where have we heard that sentiment all too often lately? The relationship between Hoffman and Phoenix is, to put it mildly, complicated; it’s almost as if a man-and-dog tale becomes a twisted love story. Whatever you make of it, and the film itself, The Master, insular, enigmatic and breathtaking, is one of the best American films of the year. Meticulously shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and best experienced in 70 mm to show off its rich and lustrous period hues and stunning compositions, it’s a film drunk on ravishing images; there may not have been a film so beautiful to look at since The Godfather.
The musical score, peppered with period pop standards, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is haunting, if insistent. Above all, this bold, uncompromising, hypnotically strange film features titanic, award-worthy performances from both Hoffman and, especially, Phoenix. The Master is unrelentingly demanding and abrasive as hell, especially when it refuses to deliver a couple of payoffs for which we’ve been hoping.
It may be less dramatically compelling than Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but the eccentric Anderson’s sixth feature cements his rep as one of the tiny handful of great contemporary American filmmakers. The Master, warts and all, is one great movie.