Heâs a bit of a loose cannon, whose explosions contain all the sense of a silverback gorillaâs 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.Â
Itâs an astounding performance in a confounding movie. The Master makes deliberate allusions to L. Ron Hubbardâs sci-fi pseudo-religion, but thatâs not what itâs actually about. Itâs a picture thatâs nearly impenetrable on first viewing. But few directorsâ films are as worthy of their challenges as Andersonâs. With The Master, Anderson creates a mind trap that pulls tighter the more you try to solve it. Itâs a film youâll feel the need to watch again immediately out of sheer obligation.
For the movieâs first 30 minutes or so, weâre alone with Phoenixâs Freddie Quell. Itâs 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 donât help us understand Quell any better, but then, weâre dealing with a character who doesnât understand himself. Instead, Anderson frames Phoenix in tight close-ups, gazing upon his creased features. Thatâs 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.Â
Stowing away on a boat, Quell eventually encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pink-hued huckster selling salvation through âthe Cause,â a self-help movement based in a variation of repressed-memory therapy, suggesting followers can revisit past lives going back trillions of years. Itâs here that Anderson drops in bits of Hubbardâs biography. But as Quell and Dodd become increasingly intertwined, the Scientology allegories fade into the background, and the movie becomes, like Andersonâs 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 âA Gift to Homo-sapiens,â but Hoffman imbues Dodd with enough unspoken doubt that itâs 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 Radioheadâs Jonny Greenwood, The Master is an ambitious enigma that never figures itself out, and thatâs precisely what makes it one of the yearâs best films.Â
Criticâs 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.