n one literally hypnotic passage of “The Master,” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s crackpot messiah, Lancaster Dodd, turns a now-classic technique of Scientology on Freddie Quell, a lost soul who has lurched into his clutches. He forbids Freddie, played by Joaquin Phoenix, from blinking his eyes during a harrowing session of bogus therapy. So is the story about Scientology? Well, sure it is; there’s no blinking away all the references to the grandiosities long ascribed to L. Ron Hubbard, and to the grab-bag of therapeutic techniques that he started to grow into a religion around 1950, when the action takes place. Yet that’s a limiting way of looking at this film, which is both grand—not grandiose—and intimate. Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable sixth feature addresses, by extension, the all-too-human process of eager seekers falling under the spell of charismatic authority figures, be they gurus, dictators or cult leaders. Or, in the case of this masterly production, a couple of spellbinding actors.
From the opening shot of turbulent water—turbulence being the default state of Freddie’s soul—”The Master” establishes its distinctively expansive look. This is partly the result of Mr. Anderson’s decision to shoot on 65mm stock, the same startlingly clear format, projected from IMAX-size 70mm film, that was used for “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” That decision is an expression of his faith in the film medium—no one who cares about cinematography will mistake this look for digital—and I urge you to seek out theaters playing the 70mm version. (The flagrantly talented cinematographer was Mihai Malaimare Jr.) Before expanding on the expansiveness, though, let me talk about the intimacy of the two-character drama within the larger spectacle.
The seeker, Freddie, a sailor mustered out of the Navy after World War II, doesn’t have a clue to what he’s seeking, although—or because—the war has left him racked with fear and seething with violence. Denying his wretchedness, he drinks anything alcoholic that he can get his lips on, including paint thinner and hydraulic fluid dripping from a warship’s innards. And Mr. Phoenix, playing a man in pain, is painful to watch. Scowling darkly, he speaks with one corner of his mouth twisted in an incipient snarl, like a malign version of Montgomery Clift. (The pitiless lighting in his close-ups emphasizes the actor’s scarred upper lip.) Standing askew, rather than upright, he strikes sclerotic, almost simian postures, arms swinging with a discombobulation not seen since Vincent D’Onofrio’s alien in “Men in Black.” It’s an extraordinary performance, fearlessly harsh yet eventually affecting for the depth of Freddie’s alienation.
The master, Dodd, is a perfect narcissist who stands at the epicenter of his own cosmos—he calls his organization The Cause—dispensing opaque epigrams, self-deflating jokes and inscrutable declarations (“We fought against the day and won”) with mysteriously irresistible charm. Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), may be right that his father is making it all up as he goes along—the multiple lifetimes, the time travel across trillions of years, the seductive stew of hypnosis, suggestion, regression and a sometimes naked aggression that breeds obedience and dependence. But Lancaster Dodd, canny virtuoso that he is, knows how to go for the spiritual jugular, and Mr. Hoffman plays him with a sonorous authority that is mysterious—and magical—in its own right.
It’s as if this great actor were also a great singer doing what singers are trained to do—not projecting the song from the throat, but supporting it from below with invisible strength and releasing it, note by effortless note. Where Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview was stained steel in Mr. Anderson’s previous film, “There Will Be Blood,” Mr. Hoffman’s Dodd is lustrous mercury, a shifter of emotional shapes. (His steely wife is played scarily, and quite wonderfully, by Amy Adams.) Dodd is a boozer, too, one who savors Freddie’s home brews, not knowing how dangerous they are. (The same can be said of Freddie’s relish for his master’s nostrums.) The ties that bind the two men are never specified, but they’re clear enough: homoerotic longings; yearnings for the wise father or worshipful son that one or the other never had; and, for Dodd, the challenge of taming a wild creature into a believer, then an acolyte, then a faithful thug who becomes the young cult’s self-appointed enforcer.
Some of the movie’s best scenes are no larger in their physical scale than the television therapy sessions of “In Treatment.” What they lack in scope, however, they make up for in intensity, and sometimes in contrapuntal nuttiness. “Are you scientific in your thought?” Dodd asks. “Yes,” replies Freddie, who’s as much of a scientist as Dodd is. “Man is not an animal,” he learns from one of Dodd’s tape-recorded teachings; “you are not ruled by your emotions.” As he listens, he scribbles a lewd note to a female member of his study group. Freddie is ruled by nothing but emotions, and “The Master” is awash in repressed sexuality. Among its indelible images is the bas-relief woman that the combat-frazzled sailor shapes from moist sand on a beach. First he caresses her, then mounts her, then falls, exhausted, alongside her.
Other images are indelible for their sweep and piercing beauty: a sailing yacht aglow in the growing darkness under the Golden Gate Bridge (Dodd the master is the ship’s commander); a 1950s department store, summoned up in its seeming entirety by the production-design sorcerers Jack Fisk and David Crank (and complemented by lighting and hues that could be from no other period); a desert canyon where Dodd unearths what he calls his life’s work, a book called “The Split Saber” that he has previously earthed for purposes of showmanship. (He describes it with characteristic modesty as “my gift to homo sapiens.”)
One sequence finds Dodd and his followers out on the desert in all its vastness. They’re taking turns at a game of “pick-a-point”—riding an old motorcycle full tilt toward shimmering points of their choosing. I didn’t get the point, apart from the obvious homage to “Lawrence of Arabia”; it’s a show-offy flourish in a film that’s mostly notable for astute storytelling and elegant style. (And for the eerie, often woodwindy dissonances of Jonny Greenwood’s score.) Another stretch of the story falls somewhat flat—it’s when Dodd summons his loyal subject to England, where Freddie’s lostness is suddenly resurgent.
Mr. Anderson’s new film neither achieves nor aspires to the closed-system perfection of his earlier masterpiece, “Punch-Drunk Love.” It’s an open system about a belief system that resembles Scientology in many details that are sure to stir controversy. Above and beyond that, though, “The Master” is a big, brave and universal saga of a man who, in the words of Dodd’s wife, “can’t take this life straight,” and who vouchsafes his vestigial faith to a brilliant riddler wrapped up in an enigma. As gifts to homo sapiens go, it’s a rich one.