Power, ambition, sex, religion, daddy issues—themes that have obsessed Paul Thomas Anderson throughout his patchy but compelling career. You'll find them all here and more in The Master, a feverish snapshot of America at the dawn of the '50s, war fresh in its mind. Anderson's dazzling feature is also, notoriously, a thinly veiled portrait of the birth of Z-grade science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard's celebrity-endorsed religion, though less barbed than you might expect.
Credit for this nuanced approach should go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who imbues title character Lancaster Dodd with a large dollop of avuncular charm. One gets the impression that "The Cause," Dodd's teachings that claim to have the potential to cure cancer and bring about world peace, is simply an outlandish bit of mischief that's gotten out of hand, a petty confidence racket that requires increasingly flamboyant lies as his followers multiply.
The film opens like a playful Beau Travail. WWII is nearing its end and on a golden South Pacific beach members of the U.S. Navy lark in the blue surf like they're in an Old Spice commercial. One of these sailors, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, gaunt, loose-limbed, in Two Lovers form), stands out from the wholesome crowd. Freddie is pure id, a volatile ball of bodily functions and uncontrollable urges. After entertaining his buddies by miming a sex act with an anatomically correct female sand sculpture, he wades knee-deep into the drink to jerk off. This is as close to contentment as we'll see Freddie for the rest of the film.
Anderson uses terse scenes and elliptical fades to black to usher us quickly through the first act, taking in the end of war and Freddie's miserable post-military existence. A career as a department-store photographer is cut short when he inexplicably beats up a middle-aged customer, and life as a farmhand is similarly short lived when he poisons a fellow cabbage picker with his paint-stripping homemade liquor.
It's while on the run from this crime that he sneaks on board a luxury yacht captained by Dodd. The svengali takes a shine to his uncouth stowaway. When he scolds his outrageous behavior ("scoundrel," "silly animal"), it's like a mother delighting in the antics of her cheeky newborn. Dodd welcomes him into the family to be his "guinea pig and protégé." It's as if he thinks that if he can steer this lost cause to the path of the Cause he can surely achieve anything.
Both men are typical Anderson protagonists. Freddie (combustible, unlucky in love) shares DNA with Adam Sandler's hot-tempered salesman in Punch-Drunk Love and several of the angry child-men from Magnolia. Hoffman's Dodd, meanwhile, seems like an amalgam of Daniel Day-Lewis's oil entrepreneur from There Will Be Blood and Tom Cruise's male-empowerment guru, another from Magnolia's ensemble. As ever, Anderson gives his actors long leashes, and Hoffman and Phoenix pull on them tightly—just short of the breaking point. (It will be a brave Oscar bookie who gives long odds on either walking away with a gold statuette come next year's awards pantomime.)
Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who earned his stripes with Francis Ford Coppola during his recent florid period, nail the fine-grained '50s detail and Sirk-like color schemes. Epic in scope but free of fat, The Master is, in the end, a fascinating companion piece to There Will Be Blood, another study in megalomania. It's also rich in humanity, a quality that can sometimes play second fiddle to Anderson's grand vision. For all the fiery head to heads that pulsate through the veins of Anderson's film, the scene to be locked away and kept for the ages is of Dodd sweetly serenading his prodigal son with a plaintive rendition of "(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China." Scientology is a red herring: This is a father-son love story, and it's caustic, complex, and utterly compelling.
The Venice Film Festival runs from August 29—September 8.