“The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s imposing, confounding and altogether amazing new film, is partly concerned with the life and work of one Lancaster Dodd, leader of a therapeutic, quasi-religious cult known as the Cause. Dodd’s “process,” a stew of Freud, hypnosis and carnival sideshow mumbo-jumbo, is based on a kind of mental time travel. The subject is led, by a series of pointed, painful questions, on a search for past trauma — earlier in life, before birth, in a previous existence — that can be identified as the source of negative emotion and destructive behavior in the present.
At a certain point Dodd modifies his theory, suggesting that instead of “remembering” our prenatal past, our minds “imagine” it. This shift leads to some consternation among his followers (notably a wealthy benefactor played by Laura Dern), and it may also fuel the audience’s skepticism about this charismatic mountebank, brought to life by Philip Seymour Hoffman with the flair and precision of a great concert pianist.
More showman than shaman — he holds his followers in thrall with jokes, dinner-table toasts and bawdy songs — Dodd is so adept at the performance of sincerity that he may long ago have fooled himself into believing the bizarre doctrines he seems to pull out of thin air. “The Master,” meanwhile, is rigorously agnostic about his methods and intentions, refusing the temptations of satire and gazing fondly at Dodd’s follies even as it notes the brutal way he and his acolytes deal with doubters and heretics. This semi-sympathetic stance makes sense, since the film, a glorious and haunting symphony of color, emotion and sound, is very much its own Cause.
Our minds sometimes play tricks on us, substituting invention for memory. Movies turn this lapse into a principle, manufacturing collective fantasies that are often more vivid, more real, than what actually happened. “The Master,” unfolding in the anxious, movie-saturated years just after World War II, is not a work of history in the literal or even the conventionally literary sense. The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful — camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief.
Lancaster Dodd bears a clear resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and there are strong echoes of Hubbard’s Dianetics in the theory and practice of the Cause, but viewers of “The Master” hoping for insight into the prehistory of Tom Cruise’s love life will be disappointed. Hubbard’s rise is the kernel of this film much in the way that the career of the early-20th-century California oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny was the seed from which Mr. Anderson (assisted by Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel “Oil!”) coaxed the lurid blossom that was “There Will Be Blood.” The stiff, theatrical pseudo-realism of period drama is the last thing on this director’s mind.
In “The Master” the production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank have produced a sensuous, richly detailed and absolutely plausible vision of 1950, and the cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., takes advantage of the density and sheen of the 70-millimeter format to approximate the lush visual grandeur of mid-50s melodrama. The specters of Eisenhower-era auteurs like George Stevens, Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk hover just outside the frame, along with the ghosts of the spiritual seekers, sexual adventurers and shellshocked veterans who dotted the American landscape at the dawn of the atomic age.
Which brings us to Freddie Quell, an alcoholic wreck played with sly, manic ferocity by Joaquin Phoenix. “The Master” is really more Freddie’s story than Dodd’s, and some of the film’s drama resides in the struggle between the two characters — and perhaps the two actors — for supremacy. “You’ll be my protégé and my guinea pig,” Dodd says to Freddie shortly after their first meeting. There turns out to be a lot more to it than that. They are father and son, guru and disciple, passionate friends and bitter competitors locked in a relationship whose sexual undercurrents are as palpable and mysterious as the motion of water under the surface of the ocean.
After serving with the Navy in the Pacific war, Freddie, a native of Lynn, Mass., washes up in California like a bit of human flotsam. Psychiatric interviews before his discharge confirm what a few wartime scenes have already suggested, namely that this guy is a mess. Shown a series of Rorschach inkblots, he sees only genitalia. Asked to account for his strange behavior, he mumbles and equivocates. Though Freddie finds work at a department store and, later, in the cabbage fields of Salinas, his real vocation is inventing and consuming cocktails made of paint thinner, darkroom chemicals, household cleaning supplies and whatever else is at hand.
Dodd offers treatment (and samples Freddie’s concoctions), but the film does not supply a diagnosis. Freddie’s menacing oddness may result from those potions, from the war or from some other buried trouble that has left him, as Dodd puts it, “aberrated.” There is certainly pain in Freddie’s past, including a lost love (Madisen Beaty) summoned to the screen during a therapeutic session with Dodd. But no single cause could account for the tangle of tics and urges that make up Freddie’s personality. Mr. Phoenix, his shoulders hunched, his speech barely intelligible, his face twisted, pushes his performance beyond the psychological gestures of the Method (which was very much in vogue in the early days of Dianetics) into a zone of pure, feral, improvisatory being.
Mr. Hoffman, in contrast, presents an integrated, highly nuanced, supremely Methodical self to the camera. The two actors work in a counterpoint that expresses not only the diverging temperaments of the men they are playing but also some of the contradictions of their era. Dodd (whose name is rarely uttered aloud in the film) is, to himself and his followers, the very incarnation of success, with the discipline of a scientist and the drive of an entrepreneur.
Freddie’s creased and haggard face is a road map of failure. But the Master is also a charlatan and a tyrant, driven by vanity and paranoia as much as by any rational ambition. And Freddie, however damaged he may be, is at the same time a person of unquestionable sincerity. Neither he nor Dodd is a stable, singular entity. Each is, in turn, hero and villain, master and disciple, con man and patsy.
The third voice — the one that binds the film together — belongs to Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), the latest of the Master’s several wives and the hidden hand that directs his empire. Peggy, who is either pregnant or holding a child in almost all of her scenes, embodies a familiar feminine ideal, and Ms. Adams does nothing to subvert the image of a perfect mother and helpmeet. What she does is show, plainly and gracefully, how the pursuit of such perfection can be monstrous.
At times “The Master” seems entirely populated by monsters, though occasionally someone — in particular Dodd’s cynical son Val (Jesse Plemons) — will sound a note of common sense. But common sense does not much interest Mr. Anderson, who glimpses the reflection of his own ambition in the aspirations of his characters, and who rewrites the rules of filmmaking at will.
He has never made a western — “Punch-Drunk Love,” a tale of righteous revenge starring Adam Sandler, probably comes closest — but all of Mr. Anderson’s six feature films to date are at least partially meditations on the American West. “Hard Eight” takes place in Reno; “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love” in the San Fernando Valley; and “There Will be Blood” in the oil fields of Southern California. “The Master” travels east — to New York, Philadelphia and England — but its geographic touchstones are the Pacific Ocean and the Arizona desert.
In all of those places, and at every point in history, Mr. Anderson discovers the perpetual promise of new beginnings and a poisonous backwash of anomie, violence and greed. In his world fortunes are constantly being made and squandered. New religions are springing to life. Gamblers, pornographers, hustlers and drunks are plumbing the mysteries of existence. Fathers are at war with their biological and symbolic sons. Husbands are at war with wives. Men are at war with the universe, perversely convinced that they have a chance of winning.
All of this striving — absurd, tragic, grotesque and beautiful — can feel like too much. “The Master” is wild and enormous, its scale almost commensurate with Lancaster Dodd’s hubris and its soul nearly as restless as Freddie Quell’s. It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.