Every movie is a voyage. We trust that the director has a map, with wondrous sights and shipboard entertainment along the way.
Our act of submission is not unlike a religious vow, and in “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson rewards us with miracles. Like any self-respecting religious experience, it doesn't peddle easy answers, but this fable about a traumatized warrior and the wizard who leads him over the rainbow is a marvel to behold.
Despite the title, “The Master” is primarily the story of an apprentice. A scowling sailor named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the live-wire performance of a lifetime) survives World War II with bootleg booze and the promise of a better world. But after he's mustered out of the psych ward, the alcoholic predator wanders through prosperous postwar America like a viral reminder of lingering evil.
Fleeing from the law, Freddie finds himself hungover aboard a yacht commanded by charismatic mystery man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, channeling Orson Welles). Dodd is the founder of a self-help movement called the Cause, which peddles a theology of past-life trauma. The ship is sailing through the Panama Canal on its way to meet wealthy donors in New York, giving Dodd enough time to indoctrinate Freddie through a hypnotic process of confession and counseling that has a palpably sexual undercurrent.
By the time the boat reaches New York, Freddie is Dodd's eager henchman, with his hands cocked on his hips like a little Mussolini. After a skeptic at a cocktail party questions the factual foundations of the Cause, Freddie implements the attack strategy of the real power broker behind the throne: Dodd's prim wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, chillingly good).
Like “Citizen Kane,” “The Master” invites frame-by-frame analysis. Semiotic scholars will note that Adams' pregnant character has red hair, as do many of the inbred believers in this insular cult, and ravenous researchers have been hunting for clues to connect the story to a certain Southern California phenomenon ever since the film went into production.
But “The Master” is not a schematic attack on a particular religion. It is a brilliantly conceived and powerfully realized work of art, with complex characters, exquisite images and ambiguously big ideas. Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) shot the move on 70mm film, a wide-screen format that evokes the composed grandeur of Kubrick. Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead) added an eerie, mid-century jazz soundtrack to complement the portrait-studio gloss of Mihai Malaimare's cinematography.
For film fans who have lost faith in the transportive power of cinema, “The Master” will make you a believer.
Four stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 2:17 • Content Nudity, sexual content and strong language