As you might have heard, The Master is the film Scientology maybe, sort of doesn't want you to see. But based on some of Joaquin Phoenix's acting choices, director Paul Thomas Anderson must've told him he'd be appearing as a psychologically tortured live-action Popeye. Playing a sailorman and World War II vet just released back to civilian life and left to deal with a sex addiction, rage issues and a slate of other psychic wounds, Phoenix keeps one eye in a perpetual squint and slurs out the side of a curled mouth. He doesn't eat much spinach but slams back plenty of homemade hooch, mixing together whatever happens to be lying around at the time, including paint thinner.
He's a bit of a loose cannon, whose explosions contain all the sense of a silverback gorilla's reaction to getting kneed in the testicles. In one scene of especially unhinged physicality, Phoenix is shoved into a prison cell, where he smacks his head against a bunk bed, gnashes at the mattress and destroys a porcelain toilet, all with his hands cuffed behind his back.
It's an astounding performance in a confounding movie. The Master makes deliberate allusions to L. Ron Hubbard's sci-fi pseudo-religion, but that's not what it's actually about. It's a picture that's nearly impenetrable on first viewing. But few directors' films are as worthy of their challenges as Anderson's. With The Master, Anderson creates a mind trap that pulls tighter the more you try to solve it. It's a film you'll feel the need to watch again immediately out of sheer obligation.
For the movie's first 30 minutes or so, we're alone with Phoenix's Freddie Quell. It's an uncomfortable half-hour. In that time, he mimes intercourse with a female-shaped sand sculpture, then masturbates into the ocean; undergoes a Rorschach test in which he reports seeing only genitalia; and attempts to choke a customer at his postwar job as a mall photographer. Although claustrophobic in their intimacy, these early scenes don't help us understand Quell any better, but then, we're dealing with a character who doesn't understand himself. Instead, Anderson frames Phoenix in tight close-ups, gazing upon his creased features. That's where the real exposition is: in the face of a man whose insecurities and lack of self-awareness have caused him to fold in on himself.
Stowing away on a boat, Quell eventually encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pink-hued huckster selling salvation through "the Cause," a self-help movement based in a variation of repressed-memory therapy, suggesting followers can revisit past lives going back trillions of years. It's here that Anderson drops in bits of Hubbard's biography. But as Quell and Dodd become increasingly intertwined, the Scientology allegories fade into the background, and the movie becomes, like Anderson's work stretching back to Boogie Nights, a portrait of American masculinity under duress. The true nature of their relationship stays ambiguous, and Dodd, for all his palpable charisma, is just as unreadable as Quell. His ego is overstuffed enough for him to subtitle a book "A Gift to Homo-sapiens," but Hoffman imbues Dodd with enough unspoken doubt that it's never clear just how much of his own bullshit he is actually buying.
Anderson is fascinated by these two unknowable characters, to the point of eschewing traditional narrative just to focus in on them. Abetted by grandiose 65 mm cinematography and a crazy-making score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, The Master is an ambitious enigma that never figures itself out, and that's precisely what makes it one of the year's best films.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: The Master is rated R. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Bridgeport, City Center, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower.