Awards season unofficially begins Friday, Sept. 21, when Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, The Master, opens in San Diego (screening at Hillcrest and La Jolla Village cinemas). Anderson has grown into one of the country's best filmmakers, making movies that are intellectually far above what almost anyone else is doing.
The new film is a fascinating look at the relationship between a fringe religious leader and a wayward disciple, and it features staggeringly good acting. But what makes Anderson's films so intriguing is that they're driven by a singular vision. Everything about his movies, as has been the case with Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, is precise and considered, and like both of those directors, Anderson is saying something much bigger than the story itself.
The title of The Master refers to a character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the film's really about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), whom we first encounter on the beach with his fellow sailors shortly after the end of WWII. Freddie's experiences in the Pacific Theater have rendered him a broken human being, a maladjusted, sex-addicted alcoholic who, despite his best efforts, is unable to find a place in a transitioning society. Things go from bad to worse to rock bottom, and that's when he stows away on a ship commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the founding father of The Cause, a burgeoning cult whose members happily drink the Kool-Aid he offers them.
The two seem a perfect pair. Dodd likes a good drink, and Freddie's only marketable skill is concocting cocktails. Freddie's a man who can't fit in, and Dodd's a man who's good at breaking down men like Freddie and building them back up. His procedure, called "processing," consists of tearing away the emotional layers Freddie has built up and allowing him to emerge raw, vulnerable and ready to listen to what else Dodd has to say—which has something to do with reincarnation, the immortality of the human spirit and the need for humanity to reclaim its perfection from the animal emotions that guide most of us.
If that sounds a little like Scientology, that's because Anderson modeled parts of Dodd and The Cause on L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of what is now the Church of Tom Cruise. But, at its heart, The Master isn't a movie about Scientology at all. This is Freddie's story.
Freddie needs security, stability and, above all, someone to offer him a sense of importance, so he defers to Dodd even if he doesn't necessarily agree with his message. And the same is true of Dodd—he needs someone like Freddie to follow him. A religion needs true believers; the streets are full of prophets who lack legitimacy. Dodd's religion is in its infancy, and though he himself seems unclear on the finer points, he believes in The Cause, which makes him as fascinating a character as Freddie.
Anderson lovingly shot the movie on 65-mm stock, which makes both Phoenix and Hoffman often look enormous. Tragically, there are no theaters here in San Diego equipped to properly screen it. So, it will be the acting that most people remember. Phoenix gives the performance of his career, letting his words dribble out of one side of his mouth, as if he's reluctant to speak at all. He's a beast, an imperfect man next to Dodd, who has struggles of his own to contend with. The scenes between the two men are electric and icky as each casts a web for the other.
Anderson has left his narrative as obscure and opaque as faith itself, which will be infuriating to some viewers, but for those of us who worship at the cult of cinema, it's just one more reason to think that Anderson himself might be the true prophet.