I’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master twice now, and while I’m still trying to get a handle on it critically (whatever that means) I’m more and more convinced that it’s a truly great film, certain to be one of the best of the year, and one that will continue to puzzle, entrance and obsess viewers for some time to come. It marks the latest in a career-long run of great films by Anderson, whose early work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) was characterized by a kind of hysterical romanticism. With this and his previous film, There Will Be Blood, Anderson has begun to experiment with more cryptic themes, more enigmatic characters; beneath their prestige-picture veneer, the passionate intensity of the early films now roils suggestively. These are sinister, unnerving period pieces, visions of American history made up of hucksters, charlatans, sociopaths. In The Master, set in 1950, Anderson gives us an image of postwar Americans in desperate search of spiritual transcendence, eager to be seduced by charismatic pop-prophets like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose philosophy combines tenets of psychoanalysis, New Age mysticism and faith healing. His interlocutor throughout the film is mentally addled Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who stumbles onto Dodd and his cult of followers and, pleased by the attention they pay him (not to mention devoid of any other prospects), becomes one of Dodd’s pet subjects. The two characters are so closely entwined that it’s possible to see Phoenix and Hoffman, both remarkable, as giving a single staggering performance (they won a joint acting prize at the Venice Film Festival.)
Anderson envisions the Fifties as a lustrous, nervy dream: the textures are lush and shimmering, but the tone is unsettling, almost nauseating. (Much of the film takes place at sea, a phrase that could be used to describe the film itself, with its vast, meandering, queasy-making rhythms.) Anderson’s strategy is not to give us traditional narrative climaxes but rather to build tension steadily, insistently. The tension is still building when the film ends. Some viewers, even avowed Anderson fans, have complained that it lacks coherence, perhaps forgetting that he has never dealt in neat payoffs. His clunky attempt to write a “long lost love” subplot into The Master as a motivating factor for Freddie proves that conventional storytelling devices don’t come naturally to him. He’s something better than a good craftsman, though: he’s a slightly batty romantic with a facility for using images and sounds (music as well as dialogue) to create grand, complex emotional resonances. How to describe the final confrontation between Dodd and Quell, for instance, other than to explain that it culminates quietly, not in violence or an epiphany but in a queer serenade that’s funny, poignant, and finally bone-chilling? It’s a scene that, like the film itself, I can’t seem to shake—its emotional beats are off-kilter, cock-eyed. This is cinema that’s blessedly not driven by a gimmick, not interested in delivering a platitudinous “message,” not out to sell us cheap fortune-cookie wisdom. It’s the work of a master artist at the top of his game, following his own mad genius wherever it may lead. Lucky for us, it continues to lead him into strange and wonderful territory.