Every Paul Thomas Anderson film is an event, but his latest, The Master, is being treated as something extra-special. Anderson shot it in 70mm—an almost quixotic gesture, given that the film industry has now converted almost entirely to digital. Its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival was preceded by a series of surprise sneak previews held with little or (in at least one case) no advance notice. Early rumors that the film is about Scientology (which it really isn’t) were followed by emphatic denials that it’s about Scientology (which it most certainly is). Hell, the very title demands obeisance. And yet there’s something curiously passive and inert about The Master, for all its evident ... well, mastery. Much like a tyrant, it demands more of you than you might think reasonable.
To be sure, the narrative presents an epic battle of wills that’s ripe for interpretation. We’re first introduced to an alcoholic, sexually frustrated Navy veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who still seems very much at sea in the years immediately following World War II. One night in 1950, Freddie staggers blindly onto a yacht owned by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the figurehead of a suspiciously familiar self-improvement program called The Cause. Dodd instantly takes a shine to Freddie and does his best to indoctrinate him; Freddie, for his part, seems genuinely grateful for the attention and fellowship but instinctively rebellious regarding The Cause’s methods, which straddle the thin line between Freudian analysis and the most sadistic variety of acting-school exercises.
Phoenix gives a mesmerizingly unstable performance, coming as close to pure id as anyone since Marlon Brando; he’s ideally matched by Hoffman, who transforms pedantic condescension into something that resembles a soft caress. But while Anderson is a born filmmaker, as a writer, he’s exasperatingly vague. His crafty modus operandi involves introducing various thematic signifiers and then declining to tackle the actual themes. By the middle of the second hour, you can almost feel the resistance as various elements fail to coalesce. Anderson’s genius is for the transcendent eruption: a drug deal gone bad set to an awesome ’80s mix tape; a climactic rain of frogs; “I drink your milkshake”; etc. The Master is the most subdued, contemplative film he’s made to date, and it leaves him exposed.