Early in Paul Thomas Anderson's stunning, profound film "The Master," the quasi-religious leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman implies to his would-be disciple (Joaquin Phoenix) that the young man has behaved like an animal.
Phoenix, feral and inquisitive and extraordinary as World War II Navy veteran and drifter Freddie Quell, will spend the next two hours illustrating how Freddie resembles and differs from an animal. Prone to violence, heavy drinking and using sex as an escape, Freddie also is unconsciously searching for answers and thus ripe for 1950s traveling epiphany salesman Lancaster Dodd.
As Dodd, Hoffman is avuncular yet commanding, his manner that of a man aware that all eyes in the room are and should be on him. Like all effective leaders political, business or sectarian Dodd takes an individualized approach. With Freddie, he plays indulgent pet owner, informing the young man when he has been a good or bad boy.
His followers already address Dodd, a self- described "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher," as "Master."
Why not turn it up a notch?
There are clear echoes of real-life Scientology founder and science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in Dodd, and director-screenwriter Anderson has said he studied Hubbard's "Dianetics" in researching the movie. But "The Master" does not condemn or promote any one philosophy. Dodd's movement, known as the Cause, is simply a framework for the more challenging, yet also more basic, story Anderson is telling.
It is the story of a soul. Of finding it, cultivating it and battling one's primal urges with the knowledge that it exists. It is the principle behind religions and self-help groups, and for its two-hour-plus running time, practically the only idea behind "The Master."
Yet the film never lags. It is too gorgeous, too expertly acted, and above all, too well directed and written. Nearly devoid of exposition, "The Master" unfolds seamlessly and naturally, with Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") showing that hallmark of a great director: knowing what to leave out.
Anderson assumes that a 20-minute scene of two men talking in a room will hold the audience's attention, and he's right. Not because of what the scene tells us about the men, but because their conversation appeals to a collective knowledge of religion and pain and humans' innate need to connect.
Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimaire Jr. contrast Freddie's inner struggles with a visual backdrop of postwar vibrancy and good health.
The sun does not merely shine in "The Master." It glows, and in 70 millimeters at theaters capable of projecting it (none in Sacramento, unfortunately).
Shot mostly in Vallejo and on Mare Island, "The Master" uses water imagery to underscore life's endless possibilities and how Freddie, a man of the water, often blows them. But Freddie screws up in all sorts of beautiful places. Like the fancy department store where he works as a photographer, taking heavily backlighted shots of 1950s families.
Freddie's first inclination, as he engages in a talking exercise called "processing" with the Master, is to mimic the bright-eyed, peppy optimism of his time. America is great and I am, too! His skinny frame, haunted eyes and the circumstances under which he meets Dodd as a stowaway on Dodd's boat suggest otherwise.
Lit up against the night sky and the setting of a party thrown by Dodd and attended by his followers, the boat serves as a spiritual beacon. But veteran seaman Freddie just sees shelter, free drinks and a possible job.
Because he needs a gig, he listens to what Dodd has to say, even though he can't figure out the guy's angle.
Neither can the audience, and that is partly why "The Master" flows so well despite its length. Hoffman mostly plays Dodd in his public, highly charismatic "master" self, even in intimate scenes with Phoenix. Dodd takes the audience through the principles of the Cause as he takes Freddie through it, and the journey fascinates. (Or maybe I was a little brainwashed).
Insights into the private man come in short, telling asides and through the complexity of Amy Adams' performance as Dodd's wife. Behind her beatific smile and hideous '50s maternity dresses, this woman broils with ambition.
The Cause lets Freddie, seeking escape from the constant haunting of the war, finally find an outlet that is neither female nor 80 proof. Phoenix, his resemblance to Montgomery Clift enhanced by his character's hairstyle and torment, lets us inside every moment of Freddie's odyssey into every primal act and gleefully executed bad decision, into Freddie's recognition that he is not an animal and can assume control over his actions, into more bad decisions.
Phoenix's lack of remove serves as perfect counterpoint to Hoffman's constant-performance mode. If Dodd is the audience's hale guide to the possibilities of self-improvement, then Freddie is its gnarled reminder of the human frailties between us and a higher state.
Four stars (out of 4 stars)
Cast:Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated R (sexual content, graphic nudity, language)