God drew a TKO against capitalism in There Will Be Blood, whose Daniel Plainview then clubbed religion to death for good measure. So much for the Old Testament, Paul Thomas Anderson-style.
Writer-director Anderson's The Master returns to the desert to unearth the New Testament. In an echo of Blood's silver-mine prologue, two men carry shovels through a canyon to the mouth of a cave to dig up a secret strongbox. Gun-toting cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) buried the trunk. Soul-sick alcoholic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has joined the man known to his followers as "the master" to help carry away its recovered contents: Dodd's early writings. One is the story's leper, the other its savior. Which is which? This short, almost wordless sequence, deep within The Master's mesmerizing, jigsaw narrative, makes the answer no clearer.
That's Anderson's point — one of them, anyway. The archaeological detour is only the most overt MacGuffin in a garden bright with them. But don't let anyone tell you what The Master is about. More than any American movie since perhaps Blue Velvet (David Lynch survivor Laura Dern is here to help you remember), Anderson's latest is about its own aboutness (or its lack of aboutness, no less determined a message), about the possibility that we're talking about religion, cultdom, method acting, the movies themselves, family, marriage, sickness. In this alternately seductive and punishing movie, as in that metal footlocker, is the truth, a pack of lies, a blank page — Dodd's, Anderson's, Freddie's, yours, take your pick.
What The Master isn't about — not really — is Scientology. In the years following There Will Be Blood, word spread that Anderson's next project would be a thinly fictionalized recounting of the secretive religion's origins. The Master instead wheels out a wholly manufactured story of a mid-20th-century America looking for answers. Dodd, at first oozing self-assurance and pacific mental clarity, says he has those answers.
Freddie may not want them, though. The two men's interrogations of each other are what fire Anderson's drama — and recall the promissory pandering of the director's ostensible source material.
Recall that not so long ago, in the days before Scientology was a household word and Tom Cruise was channeling his wattage into Rebecca De Mornay rather than L. Ron Hubbard, there was Dianetics. Hubbard's mass-market tome rounded up a dozen footlockers of post-Freudian junk science and fantastic conjecture, with the results advertised during UHF reruns and across the basic-cable spectrum as a series of answers to the modern problems staring down the average Gilligan's Island-watching latchkey kid. "What part of the mind blocks happy relationships?" posed one such commercial before revealing: "Page 409." Off to B. Dalton everybody went. But a lot of people apparently failed to reshelve the 20-pound paperback, even after taking note of its rough spiritual equivalence to a Piers Anthony novel, and so we all still have John Travolta to deal with.
Every part of Freddie's mind blocks happy relationships — along with most traffic short of animal need. It's the animal mind that Dodd seeks to banish, though, and in the furious, volatile Freddie he sees a specimen ideal for testing his methods.
Freddie is no stranger to attempted rehabilitation. We meet him before his Navy discharge from World War II service, as his ideas for celebrating V-J Day spin away from his shipmates' and doctors usher him through a series of psych tests. (How he got into a uniform or whether combat has somehow ruined him remains a mystery.) Returned to civilian life, he dedicates himself to slaking a thirst for chemicals — fuel, photo fix, Lysol — recombined (and masked with just enough citrus) into blinding moonshine.
The shots of Freddie preparing and guzzling these paint-peeling cocktails are viscerally nauseous to the point of near violence — alcoholism cinema now has its A Clockwork Orange. Anderson uses Freddie to strafe a booming postwar department store, a migrant-worked California cabbage field and then, finally, Dodd's almost Oneida-like hive. Signaling endless drunken threat, Phoenix coils his whole body into a fight-ready snarl, never letting Freddie's posture unbend. He pushes his neck and shoulders forward, as though peering down a subway tunnel to see when he might rejoin the others — or if there's time to get down on the tracks for an empty thrill. It's possible that everything we see him experience is brain-rotted hallucination. In the movie's overwhelming close-ups (Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. build huge frames for their 65 mm camera but return again and again to faces), we see that he knows this better than we do.
Dodd, a vision of charisma powerful enough to be unaffected by the rotgut his new protégé makes for them, has delusions of his own. He's a self-invented healer and intellectual who hasn't stopped at the self but gone ahead and invented everyone else while he's at it. (In a canny reflection of his creation's self-mythology, Anderson has taken on his project's marketing, making the film's hey-that's-not-in-the-movie trailers and screening it outside its distributor's supervision.) The story's alpha male, though, is Dodd's wife. Peggy is The Master's most clear-eyed character, and she senses in Freddie an unexpected threat. Amy Adams, all cold-steel maternity in the part, isn't onscreen enough, but Hoffman and Phoenix let us know that Peggy is always watching.
Hoffman matches Phoenix's intensity but finds the contours of a different, more romantic madness. Mention has been made of the Brando scale of both men's work, but the matter of which of these modern actors is supposed to be Marlon is another of Anderson's riddles. (For me, Hoffman here is the Brando of The Missouri Breaks, pushed up against Jack Nicholson at the onset of his Shining symptoms.)
But for all the staring and yelling and slamming and fighting (and for all the ways Jonny Greenwood's score does these things, too, stabbing through the screen), the movie's visual ambition and photographic scale take it over, exerting an ironclad hypnosis. As Freddie and Dodd hold each other's wretchedness up to the light and the movie's temporal structure folds in on itself and back out again, its characters' psychoses turn like the glass in a kaleidoscope. And everything in Anderson's frames is simultaneously as confined and as unbounded as that, too — as beautiful and dizzying.
It's been a week since I've seen The Master, and though I remember the lines and hear the music when I think about it, what obsesses me are its sights, its Edward Hopper compositions and impossible close-ups and pointillist details. Maybe its teases and feints won't work a second time, won't be enough to anchor the pictures stuck in my mind. But I'm ready to try a little hair of the dog.