I don’t know if I’m gnawing at The Master (2012) or if The Master is gnawing at me. This movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth, is aggressively entrancing. Bewitching, even. A movie to turn sideways and shake, in case anything falls out. It zigzags through the years following World War II, as a new faith (“The Cause”) blossoms out of American scar tissue. Its leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a patriarchal walrus with a low, rumbling voice. An expert con man, he peddles a mix of mind games and pseudoscience as a spiritual cure-all, camouflaging it under a veneer of academic authority. But even as Dodd’s congregation swells, he’s perturbed by a single lingering problem: a drunken veteran named Freddie Quell.
Freddie’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he’s perhaps the most startling creation I’ve seen onscreen this year. Shattered by the war and thirsting for rotgut, he roams from town to town, biding time as a photographer and migrant worker before he stumbles onto the Cause’s yacht. There, he’s quickly hooked by their methods—especially “informal processing,” a type of interview/hypnosis—and by Dodd himself, who calls him “naughty boy” when he misbehaves. But unlike the Cause’s other men, all pliable and genteel, Freddie is too wild. He’s lewd and self-destructive, traits that drive him out of the Cause. But he craves a surrogate family, which drives him back in. And so on.
Snarling, sneering, slurring his speech, Phoenix drills Freddie’s feral behavior into your brain through close-up after close-up. I’m half-surprised he never slashes his face across the camera like a knife. He’s a little bit Brando, a little bit rabid dog, supplementing Jonny Greenwood’s percussive soundtrack with his own rattling, raging, and drinking. (Always drinking.) He makes for a striking contrast with Hoffman’s authoritative Dodd, the two of them similar only in intensity. Between them lies Amy Adams as Dodd’s pregnant wife, the kind of role that typically means she’s colorless and supportive, but here signifies a woman who (for all her seeming sweetness) outdoes even her husband’s loyalty to the Cause.
The Master’s love story, however, is clearly between Freddie and Dodd. Theirs is a romance of violence, of shifting control and obedience, engendered by mutual fascination and nourished by their attempts to pull apart. Freddie is Dodd’s project (son? follower? lover?), toxic and impossible to reconstruct, a post-traumatic beast caged in by Jack Fisk’s meticulous 1950s interiors. The arc of their relationship plays out on an epic stage, against sun-streaked oceans and deserts, through dares and torments, with an increasingly fuzzy chronology. “When we’re in love,” preaches Dodd, “we experience pleasure and extreme pain.” Beguiling, often agitating, The Master charts these ins and outs across its vast audiovisual panorama, seizing me tighter and tighter with each new shot.