Paul Thomas Anderson's last film, "There Will Be Blood," ran into the Coen brothers and "No Country for Old Men" at Oscar time, which meant that although Daniel Day-Lewis rightly earned Best Actor honors, the latter film was the year's big winner. With the release of "The Master," however, Anderson's latest effort, it's clear that the title could just as well refer to the writer-director as it does a character in the film itself. Simply put, between both of these films Anderson has an undeniable vision which he is able to realize in ways that are both cerebral and beautiful, leaving interpretation to the viewer, but always knowing exactly what it is he is trying to say.
The film, which was shot in 65mm, opens on an island in the Pacific during WWII. Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is on the beach with his fellow sailors, far, far from home. When his mates create a woman in the sand, it's Freddie who mounts her, at first in jest, though it evolves into something different, something that's both sexual and intimate. Freddie, you see, has been deeply damaged by everything he has seen in the war, and despite his efforts, he's simply unable to truly return to society. He can't keep a job, or a girl, and all he's truly good at is mixing a good drink, using whatever he has at his disposal. That is, perhaps, what saves him when he stows away on a boat headed by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic visionary who has created The Cause, a way of approaching life through visiting past lives and examining the psyche through an invasive methodology that can have an enormous impact on someone who is desperately detached and in need of something, anything, to cling to. Someone like Freddie, that is.
Anderson has made no secret of the fact that Dodd and The Cause are based on the early days of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but before you see "The Master" as an indictment of that, ahem, church, it's worth noting that what it really is about is the relationship between these two men, both of whom are searching for something. This is a challenging film, because Anderson never truly tells you what it's about—so much of that is left up to you as the viewer. It is simply gorgeous to watch, an absolutely beautiful experience. And the acting is simply amazing. Both Hoffman and Phoenix give incredible performances, and the work they do when they're in scenes together is even better than when they're apart. These are both men who need one another—every prophet needs someone to listen, after all. Anderson examines both of them in such a way that even though neither man is easy to like, they're fascinating to watch. If I have one criticism, it might be that because the film is so intelligent, it is easy to become detached rather than involved. But that's only a problem if you don't want to join the cause, which is, in this case, incredible cinema.