‘Master’ of the Form

Boogie Nights director turns a nervous breakdown into an American classic

“I need to get the lighting right,” mutters the man with the camera in The Master, one of the few truly vital and unruly American films in recent years.

The man is Freddie Quell, a World War II Navy veteran suffering from a nervous condition. He’s an alcoholic, a brawler and a survivor of a harsh childhood, as well as untold horrors of combat. By the time he lands a job as a department-store portrait photographer in 1950, he feels no less at sea than he did in the South Pacific.

Plagued by a nasty hangover, Freddie takes an instant dislike to his latest customer. He inches his floor lamp closer to his adversary’s sweating face. “It’s too hot,” the customer says. Freddie pushes the lamp an inch or two closer. It’s a bizarrely funny scene, and Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie handles it with a crazed sense of calm, even as fists begin to fly and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera careens in exquisite unbroken tracking shots. Anderson, like Freddie, is just trying to get the lighting right while chasing the lost soul at the story’s center.

Eventually Freddie finds himself in the company of a fellow misfit. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the founder of The Cause, a Scientology-like religion. The Cause is built upon an elaborate combination of grief therapy, past-lives examination, hypnosis and the belief that true believers can return to humankind’s “inherent state of perfect.”

No Anderson film will ever reach that state. Anderson has never placed neatness ahead of the happy accident. The Master is brilliantly, wholly itself for a little more than half of its 137 minutes. Then it chases its own tail and settles for being merely a fascinating metaphoric father-son relationship reaching endgame. It may not all “work,” but most of it’s remarkable. And the best of it matches or exceeds Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007).

One of the oddest of The Master’s personality traits is how straightforward it is on one level, and how challenging on others. One evening, after his toxic homemade moonshine leads to a migrant worker’s death, Freddie is scuttling down by the waterfront in San Francisco. A yacht, lit up like a dream of elegance and “belonging,” beckons to him. Freddie hops on board and stows away. This is the boat whose self-proclaimed commander is Dodd, the self-made man portrayed by Hoffman with sly wit and an ever-shifting sincerity.

Earlier, when Freddie bursts through a migrant workers’ tent, Anderson and his cinematographer capture brilliantly an image of a terrified animal (Freddie, that is) trying to outrun his demons. Much of The Master was photographed using ancient 65-millimeter cameras, lending widescreen scope and a patina of nostalgia that may not be telling the truth about what we’re seeing. Like There Will Be Blood, this is an intimate, even claustrophobic epic, largely composed of tense two-person power struggles. Amy Adams, her innate sweetness hidden behind a delicate will of iron, is Dodd’s latest wife, Peggy, who sees in their newfound “guinea pig” Freddie both an acolyte and a storm cloud.

There are moments, and whole scenes, such as Freddie and Dodd side by side in jail cells, when Phoenix goes nuts in ways that leave characterization in the dust. Anderson sometimes allows scenes to play out just past their expiration date. As the story of The Master moves to Arizona, the momentum sputters. But scenes such as the so-called “processing,” when Dodd questions Freddie aboard the ship (“Do your past failures in life bother you? Do you get muscle spasms for no reason?”), rivet the attention. Freddie needs saving, an arrow pointing him in some direction. The Cause is that arrow, and The Master puts you in extremely close quarters, often in paradoxically open-air settings, with seekers who may be full of it. Or may not.

The Master doesn’t explicitly lay out how a cult manages to draw a crowd. Rather, the movie makes the “how” clear and, at its best, unforgettable, by showing, not telling. The people onscreen are not conventionally sympathetic, but interesting. Anderson fixes on an extremely sad, messed-up guy, Freddie, and then makes his path as rich and strange as cinematically possible. Warts, wanderings, reiterations and all, this is a film destined to be processed in many different ways. And hallelujah to that.

The Master (R) ★★★★☆