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When Dylan sang “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” he only put up two options – the Devil or the Lord – but Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film tenders a third: Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a writer and quasi-spiritualist known to his followers as the Master. Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a World War II vet with frayed nerves, eventually finds himself among Dodd’s flock, but first we meet him at the tail end of the war. Freddie, a sailor, skulks around a Pacific island like a sex-obsessed monkey wearing the haunted sneer of post-car-crash Montgomery Clift. He hangs around the edges of groups and takes jokes too far – a gag humping a sand-castle dame first elicits laughs, then uncomfortable shrugs when Freddie becomes aroused – and he grows even more unhinged during peacetime, a drifter and a drunk with rage coursing in his veins. It’s a toss-up as to what Freddie requires most – a master, a sponsor, or a shrink – and Dodd vacillates between all these roles when he takes Freddie on as a pet cause.
After the exuberantly chaotic sprawl of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson’s pictures have grown more controlled, more tightly coiled. (Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant, menacing, spare-seeming scores for The Master and There Will Be Blood have been a crucial component in the transition.) That doesn’t mean Anderson has narrowed his scope or ambition: The Master is nothing short of an alternate history to the bobby-socked, Panglossed Fifties, a bracing antidote to our rose-colored pictures of prosperity and suburban domesticity.
For all the film’s stupendous expanses of land and sea (shot in 65mm, to breath-catching effect), the predominant feeling here is that of trapped space: below decks, in windowless rooms and jail cells, and inside Freddie’s head. Freddie is not a thoughtful man – he’s all instinct – but Phoenix’s every muscle movement animates Freddie’s inner workings. We know him better than he knows himself. It’s not a happy place to be, and the actor burrows so completely into the role, he looks sick from the effort. Phoenix has the showier part, with its can’t-look-away synthesis of hard angles, fidgets, and honking guffaws, but the entire cast is working on an extraordinary level of play, most especially Hoffman as the charlatan-charismatic, and Amy Adams as his Lady Macbeth-like wife. Their complex character interplay pushes the film forward, even as the plot loses its urgency late in the second act.
The founding tenet of Dodd’s self-made religion, the Cause, is that man must defeat the animal within. That’s a tall order for a creature of impulse and outsized appetites like Freddie, who never seems more at peace than when he is laughing, fucking, and drunk as a skunk, and an even taller order for a film. That war – between man and animal – is The Master’s principal inquiry, and its findings are exhausting, exhilarating, and, in the end, irreconcilable.