“Your memories are not invited.”
Inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church Of Scientology—though by no means explicitly based on, or even about Hubbard—Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunning new film, The Master, may be a charlatan, but those five words have the power of real magic. To a World War II veteran trying to drown the nightmare of the Pacific Theater in a tubful of moonshine, the silky assurance of Hoffman’s voice brings instant relief, like a shot of morphine to the psyche. The spell wears off, but at that moment and others, it’s possible to imagine how the ideas and methods of a spiritual guru like Hubbard could find purchase in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Magicians rely on their audiences to complete their illusions—after all, a trick doesn’t work without the willful suspension of disbelief.
Shot on a 65mm canvas, The Master takes a format usually reserved for the grandest spectacles and deploys it to startlingly intimate ends; the true landscape of the film isn’t a battleground or the outer reaches of the galaxy, but the contours of Joaquin Phoenix’s face. Though no less ambitious than previous Anderson period pieces like Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood, The Master forgoes their sprawl in favor of intense chamber drama, focusing on the titanic struggle between two men rather than the clash of armies. It’s a feisty, contentious, deliberately misshapen film, designed to challenge and frustrate audiences looking for a clean resolution. Just because it’s over doesn’t mean it’s settled.
Cut on the discord of Jonny Greenwood’s score, The Master opens with Phoenix as a troubled seaman returning to America after the war and bouncing from job to job, first as a portrait photographer at a department store, later cutting cabbage alongside migrant workers in a California field. His erratic behavior gets him chased out of every position, finally landing him as a stowaway on a ship owned by Hoffman, the founder of a new religion that sounds an awful lot like Scientology. Away from the hostilities of nonbelievers on dry land, Hoffman uses his time on the boat to proselytize to fervent converts and develop ideas for his second book in peace. He presents himself with a serene confidence that goes along with his quest for human perfection, but he has his share of demons, and his wife (Amy Adams) is critical to keeping him on-mission.
In Phoenix, Hoffman finds precisely the sort of person who could open to his teachings—a drifter, grasping at straws, and at the very least willing to indulge him in exchange for three square and access to the liquor cabinet (and paint-thinner). A scene in which Hoffman puts Phoenix through a “processing” session, breaking down his defenses with a relentless fusillade of questions, is one of the best in Anderson’s career, and it sets the table for a relationship that ebbs and flows between camaraderie and rivalry. Phoenix’s vulnerability seems to make him easy prey for a snake-charmer of Hoffman’s caliber, but their bond isn’t that simple—sometimes, the guru just wants a drinking buddy, someone to accept his own weaknesses without judgment.
Pre-release controversy aside, The Master isn’t an examination of Scientology or its development—though the parallels between Hoffman’s character and Hubbard, or Scientology and “The Cause,” are unmistakable—but uses it as a means to an end. Anderson has a much keener interest in Phoenix as an example of the American soldier returning from war, and in man’s attempts to come to terms with his animal nature. It would have been easy enough for Anderson to draw a stark contrast between Phoenix’s feral aggression and Hoffman’s gentle pleas for civility, but the roles get twisted and confused, and their commonalities at times are just as pronounced as their differences. Anderson builds the entire film around a handful of toe-to-toe conflicts between the two, each with its own tenor—tender and slashing, bitter and resigned. It’s a reminder that for all his gains as a stylist, Anderson continues to get better as a writer, too, not only creating complex characters, but allowing that complexity to linger and disturb.
The Master extends a tradition of Anderson films about fathers and sons, whether of the real or surrogate variety: Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. Phoenix comes to Hoffman as the wayward child, looking for guidance, but the neediness isn’t entirely limited to him—while Anderson nails the way spiritual frauds can abuse the faith of their followers, there are times when their roles shift and the power of the father is transferred. Given parts that draw on a full range of emotion, Phoenix and Hoffman are equally superb as seekers who both find what they need in each other and expose the emptiness and hurt at their core.
The Master means to unsettle—not through the startling violence of Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, or the emotional crescendos of Magnolia, but through a central relationship that’s played for the highest stakes. It’s ambiguous and jagged in shape, and perversely resistant to insta-reaction. Anderson has never made a more difficult film, but he hasn’t made a more mysterious one, either, or one so suffused with meaning: The Master’s function as an incisive shadow history of Scientology is almost incidental to the other tasks it’s trying to accomplish. Defiant in the face of rapid digital conversion, Anderson gives celluloid the victory lap it deserves. Seen in 70mm, it’s a processing session on an epic scale, an amplification of wounded souls.