The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature and his first in five years, is not about Scientology. This needs to be stated early, and indeed cannot be overstated, since the connection between the two has now become so strong that anyone expecting a scabrous disemboweling of that organisation, albeit through a fictional lens, will be left wanting. Though The Cause, the cult established around the teachings and writings of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is clearly inspired by the Church, and Dodd himself is modelled on L. Ron Hubbard, it is not the focus of the film. The Master is about Scientology in much the same way that Boogie Nights was about the life of John Holmes: both use real-life analogues to explore a specific era and milieu, as well as the themes that arise as a result.
What The Master is about, then, is the broader context into which a spiritual or intellectual movement like Scientology could come into being. The members of The Cause often talk about some primordial trauma echoing through its members' past lives, and the trauma in the background of the story is the Second World War, the greatest trauma of the twentieth century. As people try to find meaning in the wake of such destruction, it is hardly surprising that, shocked by what they have seen, they might be drawn to new ways of thinking, particularly ones centred around people who claim that they can make sense of everything, even when what they say makes no sense at all. This is why Lancaster Dodd is able to draw people to him in The Master, but also why Ayn Rand was able to draw people to Objectivism in the post-War era. At a time of great uncertainty when no one really knows what to believe, someone who is certain and believes something - anything - can become immensely powerful. As the old saying goes, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a product of just such an era: A liar, a drunk, adrift. We first meet Freddie on an island in the dying days of the War, chopping up coconuts to mix alcohol. He then fights with some of his fellow sailors, mimes having sex with a sand sculpture of a woman, and masturbates on a beach. (A moment that could be read as an allusion to Ulysses, but is more likely an indication of the relative dearth of "masturbating on a beach" scenes in popular culture.) From there, things only get worse for Freddie. He takes up a couple of menial jobs, each of which, for one reason or another, he loses. Perpetually drunk, he stumbles across a party on a boat being held by Dodd, who then takes Freddie under his wing as his guinea pig and protege, introducing him to his wife (Amy Adams) and son (Jesse Plemons) as the two form an intense and volatile bond.
The two men are antithetical and complementary. They are the id and ego; one an animalistic bundle of emotion and desire, the other a calculating and manipulative demagogue. Anderson illustrates this contrast throughout the film, though never in a manner more overt or striking than a scene in which they are placed in adjacent prison cells. Freddie throws himself around, smashes the fixtures and futilely smashes his head against the top bunk of his cell whilst Dodd stands stock still, observing. It's a dichotomy that produces a friendship of mutual fascination. Freddie is drawn to Dodd because he seems to have the vision and sense of direction that he can't find in his own life, yet Dodd is drawn to Freddie because he represents the unbridled, libidinous creature that he represses within himself. Superficially, they come together over their shared love of Freddie's homemade alcohol and a shared status as inquisitive human beings, but their connection to each other runs deeper, and into dark and dangerous waters.
The dynamic is reflected in the two central performances. Hoffman is cool, calm and collected as Dodd, only occasionally allowing his emotions to burst to the surface when his beliefs or writings are questioned, which come across as both moments of volatility and profound self-loathing. As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix is a wiry, fiery figure who always seems a second away from violence. It's a deeply unsettling performance - made even more so by Phoenix's year-long experimental performance piece in which he lived like the sort of burn-out he plays here - perfectly complemented by Johnny Greenwood's jarring and frequently atonal score, which does much to establish the particular tone that Anderson strives for: an air of constant uncertainty and menace. In that regard it recalls both his thrillingly discordant score for There Will Be Blood, but also Jon Brion's much quieter - though no less unnerving - work on Punch-Drunk Love.
That musical association runs to the other areas of the film as well. Though The Master shares a sense of grandeur and an episodic, bordering on impressionistic approach to storytelling with There Will Be Blood, it's an altogether quieter film that recalls the painful intimacy of Punch-Drunk Love, though that does not necessarily mean that the film lacks power. It's a film that slowly roils, building in intensity so subtly that its outbursts wind up feeling both surprising and natural. The friendship between Freddie and Dodd unfolds in ways which are surprising and disturbing, shifting between a number of different kinds of relationship. At times it resembles one between a mentor and his protege, a father and a son, a sadist and a masochist, and all the while seems to be driven by a love which could be either Platonic or home-erotic. Anderson has always been fascinated by the complexities of the relationships between fathers and sons both biological and surrogate, and the one he explores between Freddie and Dodd is his most beguiling and maddening yet.
Much like its immediate predecessor, The Master has an inscrutable quality to it which is by turns thrilling and frustrating. Like a great novel, it ends in a way which is emotionally and thematically satisfying, but which leaves enough unresolved to ensure that it lingers, making repeated viewings essential to unpack what remains unseen the first time. Since the experience is so rich and compelling, it also makes the idea of revisiting a joyous proposition. In one fell swoop, Joaquin Phoenix has firmly re-established his credentials as one of the best actors of his generation, and Paul Thomas Anderson has firmed up his claim to be its finest director. The greatest criticism that could be made of the film is that it is not There Will Be Blood and might seem minor by comparison. Yet where There Will Be Blood exploded, The Master simmers, boils over and sears. A bracing and indelible experience.