- - Thursday, September 20, 2012

It’s tempting to call “The Master” a revelation, except that I’m not quite sure what, if anything, this elusive and elliptical tale of character, will and power actually reveals. But it’s certainly a confirmation of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s status as one of the most fascinating and visionary directors working today.

Also one of the most difficult.

Mr. Anderson is the director of five previous features, including at least one masterpiece, 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” a dark and sweeping story of oil discovery in turn-of-the-century California. Like that film, “The Master” is an American period piece that deals heavily with religion and worldly success, and a power struggle between two towering figures locked in a surrogate father-son relationship.

The first of those figures is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a rootless World War II Navy veteran who arrives home and takes a series of odd jobs before inadvertently ending up in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man known to most as the Master. Dodd is the leader of the Cause, a burgeoning, cultlike group with pop-psych self-help overtones and quasi-religious undertones. He takes Freddie on as a sort of test-subject to help him perfect the techniques of mental mastery he’s developing. Between them lies a third power, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), Dodd’s young wife, and a quiet but not-so-subtle influence on his movement.

It’s clear that Mr. Anderson, who also wrote the script, based the Cause on Scientology, and Dodd on its founder, L. Ron Hubbard: Both use psychological techniques to achieve mental control, and both have a mystical element tinged with sci-fi outlandishness. It’s just as clear, however, that Mr. Anderson has little interest in any kind of straightforward debunking or expose. Scientology is not the movie’s subject but the springboard for Mr. Anderson’s considerably more abstract ideas.

What are those ideas? That’s harder to say. Much of the movie is framed as a battle between its twin poles: Freddie’s uncontrolled aggression and Dodd’s practiced manipulations. Each seems to desire both to master the other and to master himself, and each also performs a sort of submission to the other. Through their interactions, the movie sketches a tug of war between reason and unreason, self-discipline and self-release, religious mysticism and mental self-control.

As always, Mr. Anderson manages to coax astounding performances from his actors. It is an open question whether he gives them too much freedom; Mr. Phoenix, in particular, occasionally goes overboard with his rages. But it’s a joy to see performances of such nuance and depth. It’s clear that these actors would do anything for Mr. Anderson, and he anything for them in return.

He’s less giving, however, to his audience. Mr. Anderson often conducts the proceedings in a way that comes across as deliberately opaque, intent on frustrating easy readings, and easy viewing, as on revealing what he actually has in mind. There is a hypnotic intensity to the film that seems designed to break viewers down as much as draw them in.

Which is perhaps appropriate for a movie about the clearing of built-in expectations and understandings. It’s a film that requires a form of submission from the viewer as well.

★★★★

TITLE: “The Master”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

RATING: R for nudity, sexual situations, language

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS