Majestically shot in 70mm, — although Philadelphians will have to travel to New York or D.C. to see it in the wide-gauge format — Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a film of such self-conscious stature that it demands to be called a masterpiece. That’s not the same thing as being a masterpiece, mind you, but for long stretches, it’s close enough.
Joaquin Phoenix, his shoulders hunched inward like a sightless crustacean, plays Freddie Quell, a World War II sailor who returns home with little more than a taste for home-brewed cocktails involving liberal quantities of torpedo fuel and paint thinner. One night, in a toxic haze, he wanders onto a yacht chartered by Lancaster Dodd (a basso Philip Seymour Hoffman), the guru behind a nebulous self-help movement called The Cause. Anchored by a charismatic author and fixated on residual negative energy carried over from past existences, The Cause is clearly based on Scientology, but Anderson, like The Cause’s leader, keeps the details vague. One of the film’s recurring motifs, seen during Freddie’s postwar psych eval and recapitulated in an overhead shot of the yacht’s wake, is a Rorschach blot; like The Cause itself, The Master is a warped mirror held up to its would-be followers.
Less ponderously about America than Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, The Master is driven by more primal, less chauvinist urges. Dodd insists that humankind is a breed apart from the animal kingdom, — standing, as he often puts it, “far above that crowd” — but Freddie is all urges, most of them frustrated. In the first scene, as word of the armistice filters in, he and his fellow sailors fashion a woman’s body out of wet sand to celebrate, and until the movie’s final scene, that’s as close as Freddie comes to getting his end wet. Whether he’s striking out or pushing away, he remains unsatisfied, which may be a deliberate metaphor for how The Master leaves us. Phoenix’s performance is a guttural wonder, and Hoffman seems to have found a whole new register for his voice, but as Freddie drifts into and finally out of Dodd’s orbit, Anderson seems like a chess player toying with a mid-level piece, shifting him around the board without a strategy in place. The Master is less than the sum of its parts, but, oh, what parts they are.