The Cause is a funny name for a spiritual movement. It sounds like a nice way of putting a disease. “Honey, we have to talk. I’ve got . . . the Cause.’’ Which is to say it sounds like a nice way of putting a disease in 1950. That’s the year in which Paul Thomas Anderson has set most of “The Master,’’ a title that could now refer to the scope and grandeur of his filmmaking. More immediately, it’s how some followers of the Cause address Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic fellow who created it and doesn’t appear to be done determining its particulars, like, namely, what it is. To that end, he turns a feral young naval veteran into his test subject.
The gamble of a movie like this, a film that takes it upon itself to question the limits and possible emptiness of belief, is that it, too, could be dull and meaningless. But Anderson knows what he’s doing. Nothing as big and strange and right as “The Master’’ should feel as effortless as it does. That’s not the same as saying that it’s light. It’s actually heavy. It weighs more than any American film from this or last year. It’s the sort of movie that young men aspiring to write the Great American Novel never actually write.
Anderson began his career as a dazzling overreacher. His first four films — “Hard Eight,’’ “Boogie Nights,’’ “Magnolia,’’ “Punch-Drunk Love’’ — were notable for their mania, for the way both the camera and the story would tornado around until he found a moment of biblical postmodernism; until, say, it rained frogs; until you wanted to prescribe him something. With “There Will Be Blood,’’ it was as if he’d broken up with his approach to filmmaking. That look-at-me dazzle was gone. The hazy influences were clearer and more appropriate. He no longer yearned to be Robert Altman or replicate the 1970s. He was 35 in 2007, but his soul was 62. He was Stanley Kubrick. He was John Huston. He was Abel Gance. The punk was a better classicist. “The Master’’ continues this new phase of serious social themes; reasonably direct narrative; sublime, almost architectural framing; goose-pimple soundscapes. “There Will Be Blood’’ turned the dawn of the industrial age into a kind of horror film about ambition’s deranging power. “The Master,’’ which was shot in oil-painterly 70mm, pursues the deranging power of faith.
The persistent assumption about the film is that it’s the story of Scientology. This may well be what Anderson intends. There are some similarities between Lancaster Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard, the writer, philosopher, scientist, theologian, and seaman who, in the early 1950s, was sharpening Dianetics and the tenets of Scientology. But, more generally, the film is interested in a cult of personality. Like Anderson’s previous movie, “The Master’’ is a portrait of megalomania. By the time he is introduced, aboard a midsize ship that serves as the site of his daughter’s wedding, Dodd has already built a following around the Cause and its belief in past lives and its aim of erasing old trauma. Its members furnish him and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), with access to trinkets of their affluence — boats, homes, that sort of thing — for the privilege of calling him Master and throwing private soirées where the Master massages up their recovered memories.
Dodd takes a glorifying interest in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the itinerant sailor from Lynn, who stumbles onto Dodd’s pleasure cruise while the ship is docked one night in San Francisco. Dodd could be drawn to the drifter’s stooped posture, slurred way with language, wizened face, and general uncouthness — everything about him says “fix me.’’ There’s also no underestimating the appealing challenge of conquering the demons of a man whose name is Freddie Quell. Though, the truth about their bond might be simpler than any of that. Freddie is an alcoholic, and Dodd likes the poisonous drinks Freddie concocts. When asked whether his cocktails, which contain everything from gasoline and cleaning agents to developing fluid, are lethal, Freddie’s rattled response is, “Not if you drink it smart.’’ For his part, Dodd might be the first man, besides Freddie, to ingest this stuff and not keel over. One man thinks he’s found a friend. The other bypasses friendship and sees experimental possibilities. Dodd calls Freddie a silly animal, and in this silly animal the Cause has a cause.
You or I might take a look at Freddie and want to call a shrink, but his psychological evaluation from the Navy amounts to an inkblot test that ends after Freddie laughingly sees only penises and vaginas. Initially, the relief Dodd offers Freddie is more sophisticated than that. He makes Freddie close his eyes and find his way back to the memory of a girl he left in Lynn after he enlisted. It’s a touching sequence, and then you see the smile of opportunistic wonder wash over Dodd’s teary face. Thus blurs the line between Dodd’s competence and his charlatanism, between salubrious therapy and exploitative parlor tricks.
When a guest at a New York dinner party challenges Dodd to offer some proof of his method, Anderson provides a terrifying peek at what lurks beneath Dodd’s elocution and good manners and reason: Freddie. Dodd’s pot boils profanely over. It’s the tone you’ve heard some politicians take this election cycle when talking to journalists about facts: They’re somebody’s opinion.
You realize in that scene, and in an astonishing later scene in a jailhouse, how much Freddie is the id to Dodd’s rickety superego. Suddenly, a movie that seemed focused on two different men turns into a movie about two different approaches to masculinity — the unvarnished one and the lie. Indeed, it seems that the crucial figure in the Cause is actually Peggy, whose sense of persecution is balanced with hubris, a schoolmarm chirp, and cunning, in a way that only Adams could bring off. Peggy’s control of Dodd is quiet. He’s her silly animal. And she’s increasingly skeptical of Dodd’s pet. There’s the powerful possibility that Freddie is unreachable, that he can’t be quelled by the Cause, that his soul, if he has one at all, is tethered to Earth, that he can aspire no higher than a flask of his poison hooch and sex with a pretty girl, that that’s heaven to him.
But making Freddie see the light becomes an almost cruel family affair. What’s so devastating about “The Master’’ is how willfully Freddie’s maladies are disserved, never more so than when he spends an afternoon in a Philadelphia manse with his eyes closed, feeling his way from one side of the foyer to the other, from the window to the wall, over and over, undergoing Dodd’s most torturous exercise before a room full of apostles. The repetition is meant to wash his brain, so he can feel a new soul. But he’s just punching wood and slobbering on glass.
It’s fair to see in all of this the origins of a system of belief like Scientology. But the Cause, with its group sessions and personality exercises and retreats into past memories to enhance the present, also strikes me as a stand-in for a different school of belief, for the belief moviegoers place in acting and characters. During that foyer scene, I watched the acolytes watching Freddie, and it reminded me of photos of earnest students watching exercises at the Actors Studio. By the late 1940s and 1950s, Lee Strasberg and the Method had begun to change the way we saw movie acting. It gave the movies a heightened dimension of realism, relying on past memories, ideas of emotional release and control to get a truer, purer performance.
You can see in the two lead actors how much Anderson might have been thinking — if not about Strasberg and, perhaps, Marlon Brando, who rejected Strasberg, then perhaps about the possibility of Dodd as an instructor who senses a kind of actorly greatness in Freddie. That, of course, is what Phoenix provides: concentrated realness. With Phoenix, you’re always worried he might kill himself for a role. At least twice, I thought, “Oh, ouch.’’ As it is, his face looks unnaturally rumpled, like someone forgot to take him out of the dryer. He gives us the animal Dodd assumes him to be but in a way — as Daniel Day-Lewis did in “There Will Be Blood’’ — that feels like an art form rawer than acting. Hoffman, who’s worked with Anderson before in smaller roles, puffs himself full of insinuating bluster. If Phoenix’s approach to performing is like a car flying off the road, Hoffman remains sane enough to slow down at yellow lights and stop at reds, even in the moments that Dodd breaks character, even when Hoffman’s doing Methody showboating.
Anderson gives us a figure who wants to be worshiped without skepticism or doubt or reality. You get the feeling that Dodd might want planets and schools of thought named after him but that he’d take less celestial adulation, too. He’d settle for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.