Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Man is not an animal!" That is the impassioned avowal of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is the title character, I think, of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie "The Master." I say I think he's the title character, and there's good evidence that he is -- other characters in the film refer to him by that title, for instance -- but then again, the term may well refer to something larger. It's that kind of movie.
And what a movie it is. It's a period piece that recreates the late '40s and early '50s in almost microscopic detail while almost never offering a panoramic, ostensibly contextualizing perspective on those times. It's a visually bold movie, shot with a camera that exposes a film frame nearly twice as big as 35mm and captures an attendant increase of detail, but also a movie that values the intimate close-up far more than the conventionally impressive wide shot. It's a movie inspired in part by a real "master" and the religion he founded. Yes, Lancaster Dodd bears many similarities to Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and a number of incidents in the movie bear a direct relation to the creation of that ostensible church and the concoction of its urtext, "Dianetics" (a superb essay by Kent Jones in the fall issue of the magazine "Film Comment" breaks down the correspondences in admirable detail). But it's also less about that specific set of beliefs than about how humans rely on belief systems in general to try and lift themselves out of an elemental rage, and to assert, yes, that man is not an animal.
But what if man is an animal? That's the question, or a question, posed by Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the first character we meet in the film, the man-animal who is to be Lancaster Dodd's counterpart. Harmless enough, and even maybe a little poignant in repose, the sex-obsessed Freddie, who's taken a wartime "Dear John" letter harder than most, is a real pistol when he's got a few in him, and he'll go to great lengths to get a few in him; one of his first actions in the movie, when he's on a destroyer in the Pacific as the end of World War II is announced, is to cut the fuel lines in some no-longer-needed torpedoes to drain them of grain-alcohol fuel. Stateside, he gets a job as a department store portrait photographer, and the haunting kitsch factor of such items is evoked by Anderson with ruthlessly accurate alacrity, evoking a spell of familial self-mythologizing that's broken by a scene of Freddie, drunkenly assaulting a patron, that plays like a brick going through a plate glass window.
Freddie seems well down the road to perhaps a typical drunkard's death, expiring in a ditch somewhere, when he drifts down to a pier and hops on a departing yacht on which he sees cheerful revelers. The next morning, its captain, the portly, voluble Dodd, observes that Freddie's anti-social, aggressive demeanor derives from his consumption of alcohol. Freddie smirks, but as it turns out, Dodd is no teetotaler. Rather, he asks Freddie to recreate one of his potions, with which he apparently delighted Dodd during his blackout night before. Freddie, not unhappy for a place to stay, obliges, availing himself of both the ship's liquor cabinet and its cleaning supplies, oy. (The shot in which Freddie quite casually downs the contents of a bottle of Lysol is one of the most jaw-dropping moments in a movie that abounds with them.)
And so, Freddie is introduced to the master, a self-described philosopher who espouses "The Cause" and believes he can solve Freddie's, and the world's, problems via said cause. Once the outrageously misbehaving Freddie (who, among other things, bluntly and grossly hits on Dodd's adult daughter mere days after she's wed) sits down for "processing" with Lancaster, he proves himself a seemingly exceptionally apt pupil. But Dodd's devoted, steely wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), has her doubts, as do some of Dodd's more overtly respectable disciples.
The story of "The Master" does not move to any kind of conventionally revealing climax. Rather, Anderson walks the viewer through a series of scenes that bring the characters a step forward, a step backward, a step sideways, always maintaining a sense of awful tension that seems as if it could spin itself into a frenzy at any second. Phoenix, slimmed down to the dimensions of a live wire for his role, makes Freddie a compellingly watchable embodiment of human tragedy at its most mud-wallowing loathsome. Hoffman, a longtime collaborator with the director, is absolutely magnificent as Dodd, a bluff man whose air of absolute assurance doesn't quite mask an unquenchable longing for something he knows he'll never have. Adams is all business -- very odd business -- as Dodd's wife, and Laura Dern is very aptly used as one of Dodd's more fervent patrons.
These are merely the firsts among equals in the magnificent cast of a movie that just teems with magnificent, uncomfortable moments. A jailhouse scene that frames Freddie and Lancaster in just-so positions that honor "realism" while laying on some symbological weight, and then has each character do his "thing," is an instant classic. The filmmaking here is so spot-on spare, so distilled, so ramrod powerful that it makes Anderson's wonderful "Boogie Nights" look a bit overbusy by comparison. And Johnny Greenwood's score is as pointed as his work for Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."
"He's just making it up as he goes along," one character says of Dodd's "Cause" late in the film. "The Master" doesn't condemn Dodd for that; in fact, one takeaway from the movie is that that's exactly what we're all doing. And "The Master" is an object demonstrating just how terrifying/exhilarating that state of being tends to be. Quite possibly the movie of the year, or the decade.
"The Master" opens in LA and NYC on Sept. 14. It opens wider starting Sept. 21.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.