Admirable craftsmanship in "The Master" but too much of a detached art piece

The Master (2012)
138 min., rated R.

1997's audacious "Boogie Nights." 1999's intoxicating "Magnolia." 2002's oddly lovely "Punch-Drunk Love." 2007's admirably operatic "There Will Be Blood." Paul Thomas Anderson makes films that aren't like anyone else's, both visually and from the performances he squeezes out of his actors. Remember, he did tap into Adam Sandler's once-undetectable acting talents. Flirting with greatness but too enigmatic to grasp, Anderson's latest, "The Master," is a piece of glass-encased art that can only be admired from afar. It's his most ambitious and challenging work, to be sure, but it also ends up his biggest disappointment. There's a certain allure and daring about ambiguity in a story, but here, it's so ambiguous and elusive that we're forced to feel distant and cold on an emotional level.

Somewhere on the South Pacific in 1950, just five years after World War II, Navy seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has more than a bad case of post-traumatic stress. With his sexual urges and addiction to alcohol, the loose-cannon sailor masturbates in front of the ocean and plays with a naked woman made out of sand, and then, to tend his alcoholic vices, he mixes "potions" with paint thinner, torpedo fuel, or any chemical he can get his hands on. Along with his group of fellow vets, Freddie leaves the VA hospital to feel displaced from the post-WWII world. A drunkard and a drifter, he tries making it as a photographer in a department store, but after losing his cool, he ends up stumbling on a bender and stowing away on a yacht docked in San Francisco and bound for New York. This is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher." Like Freddie, Dodd calls himself a "hopelessly inquisitive man" and introduces this "scoundrel" to his self-styled religion (or cult?), known as "The Cause." Becoming Dodd's right-hand man, Freddie ends up drinking the Kool-Aid, but can the master tame the aggressive, uncouth animal? Or is he "beyond saving"?

With all the advance rumors on "The Master" being a thinly veiled expose on the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, that is not the case with the finished product. The parallels are there, but this is more of a story that hones in on the symbiotic relationship between damaged goods and a brainwashing surrogate father. Or is it? Anderson is certainly saying something about religion, faith, healing, blind obedience, and finding one's purpose in life, but his script doesn't really explore those ideas in depth or lead to anything rewarding or as profound as it should be. If there's any reason to watch, it's for the performances and technical craftsmanship. 

Returning to the screen after his hoax retirement in the 2010 performance-art stunt "I'm Still Here," Phoenix is simply mesmerizing here, proving that another snub of an Oscar nom would be a crime. Somehow skirting around Method histrionics, he is Freddie Quell. Twitching, mumbling, hunching over, and sometimes exploding with anger, an emaciated Phoenix has the showiest turn, but it is unhinged and darkly funny, without feeling too big. As a severely damaged man running on crazed impulse, he finds the precise mix of internal and volcanic. To Phoenix's pit bull is his master, magnificently played by Hoffman, who's at the peak of his powers. Whether he's whispering or raising his voice to those that refute his ideas, he commands the screen like a leader. Hoffman projects the powerful amount of charming persuasion and bluster as this brainwashing master, though the fact that we never fully understand this man or why he feels so close to Freddie grows maddening. Dodd's son, Val (a well-chosen Jesse Plemons), even says his father is "making it up as he goes along," so is the master just a crackpot? Putting her lovability aside and testing her underrated versatility, Amy Adams is fiercely terrific as Peggy Dodd, who shows the push she has behind the cult more so than she initially lets on. Juxtaposed with her sweet, dismissive exterior, she can turn stern and combative. Still, Peggy, like most of the characters on screen, feels undernourished. Laura Dern also makes a brief impression as Dodd's Philadelphia hostess who, in one moment, questions his teachings.

There's no denying the mastery behind and in front of the camera. Brilliantly scored by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (also the composer for "There Will Be Blood"), the thrumming, staccato strings, and knocking sounds set an appropriately menacing, on-edge tone. To no surprise, Anderson's visuals (photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr.) are beautifully rich, sweeping, and detailed, and this being the first film since 1996's "Hamlet" to be shot on 65mm film (which seems forgotten since digital projection) doesn't hurt. The crisp images enhance the finer details, particularly in close-ups of the actors' faces, and some of them already feel like new moments in classic cinema. The most breathtaking scenes are the early ones with Phoenix and then those that feature Phoenix and Hoffman going toe-to-toe. In a cabin on the yacht, Dodd makes Freddie his guinea pig/protege and conducts his conditioning exercise called "informal processing" on him. The vein-popping Freddie goes under the spell, being asked the same rapid-fire questions over and over, answering truthfully about having intercourse within his family, and then recalling the 16-year-old Doris (Madisen Beaty), whom he promised to return to after the war on a bench. It's a quietly electric scene to behold.

If films, to you, are no more than just excuses to sit in a dark theater to escape and toss back popcorn, then "The Master" will surely infuriate and bore. Spoon-feeding answers and adhering to a traditional three-act structure have never been part of Anderson's rule book and both are defiant in this particular film's aim. Whereas "There Will Be Blood" was The Daniel Day-Lewis Show and then bizarrely left one wanting a milkshake by the end, "The Master" is a thrill to watch two acting heavyweights, while letting us think for ourselves and make up our own minds, but it does not satisfy. Long and ponderous, impenetrable and stuffy, "The Master" is ultimately (and alternately) contemplative and frustrating, a piece of work that will genuinely divide viewers and critics alike. Perhaps the film will feel more thematically rich and resolved with repeated viewings, but will it ever allow you to shake off the chilliness and deeply care? That's a question only the master can answer.

Grade: C +