For the Cause

Don’t expect a specific rebuke to L. Ron Hubbard in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s exciting and bewildering new film. Occasionally, highly tolerant people will argue that the Church may be bad sci-fi, but at least it’s a discipline for extremely out-of-control people. And there is something of that argument here.

Anderson’s most accomplished film to date tells of the partnership between a shell-shocked Navy vet of 1950 named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and a dapper, bigger-than-life fraud, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In his grand, self-amused and patronizing way, this fraud likes Freddie’s company and sees him as the perfect subject for experiments, a man to be broken and remade.

At a compound in Philadelphia, “writer/adventurer/nuclear physicist” Dodd conducts quasi-psychiatric sessions with the help of his pregnant wife, played by an impressive Amy Adams, showing how much eroticism there can be in frost and poisonous disappointment. Dodd’s new crusade, the Cause, develops as his gang of family and entourage head West.

The storyline is meant to rattle viewers, dropping us into scenes, locations and times, which seems to reflect our view of Dodd as seen through Freddie’s disordered state of mind. Phoenix’s kaleidoscopic acting is as unpredictable a performance as we’ve seen in the movies. It’s very original, even as Phoenix shows facets that recall the best of Brando, Connery and Robert Ryan.

The Master includes some straight-faced mockery of the paranoia of cults as when Dodd makes his friendly lab-Rhesus Freddie swear he’s not actually an agent of extraterrestrials. What’s underneath, however, is about as funny as a malignant virus. Dodd’s stirring of Freddie’s soft brains heralds bigger things: the rise of the intelligence apparatus, the think-tank, Cointelpro, the dawn of rising ruthlessness, the lies of World War II furthered by new means.

The bigger picture looms like Hoffman’s screen-filling head, demanding obedience in sickeningly insinuating tones. The voice echoes against the background of postwar America, a nation about to get gigantic.

‘The Master’ is in wide release.