After confessing that his mother is in a "loony bin," his father died of drink, he has carnal knowledge of an aunt and his past is checkered, Freddie is assured by The Master: "You are the bravest boy I've ever met."
The same might be said of Paul Thomas Anderson, a director-writer who shies away from the use of the word "cult" in talking about "The Master" and downplays inspiration from Scientology, which he previously acknowledged.
3.5 stars = Very Good
- Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams.
- Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Those familiar with L. Ron Hubbard will bring a different sensibility to "The Master," while the rest of the world will just want to know if it's worth their time and money. It is, although if you walk into it thinking it may be the best movie of the year (as I did), you may walk out slightly disappointed (as I did).
It proves, however, that Joaquin Phoenix digs deeper with each passing project -- so much that you wonder how he climbs back out of a role -- and Philip Seymour Hoffman really can do anything.
He won an Oscar for appearing to shrink and refashion himself as Truman Capote and recently tackled Willy Loman in a Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" and took violin lessons for the still-to-come "A Late Quartet."
Here, Mr. Phoenix is Freddie, a lost soul, a World War II veteran trying to fill a bottomless, aching hole with homemade hooch (he actually uses paint thinner in one batch), sex, anger, aggression and a need to believe in someone or something.
It's all Freddie for the first 30 minutes of the movie, until serendipity or fate leads him to The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Mr. Hoffman), the leader of a movement called "The Cause" in 1950. He practices a jumble of hypnosis, hokum, counseling, affirmations such as "Man is not an animal," and processing, which involves repetitive questions and the notion of past lives.
Freddie falls in with Dodd and his family of relatives and followers, including some wealthy benefactors, but disillusionment roars to life at times. When Dodd tries to calm a feral Freddie with, "Your fear of capture and imprisonment is from millions of years ago," the younger man will have none of it. He tells him to shut up, in no uncertain terms.
Their push-pull continues -- after all, what is a master without a follower -- for much of the movie, with others such as Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and an adult son (Jesse Plemons) from a previous marriage weighing in on Freddie and on Dodd's teachings.
Instead of focusing on the usual historical markers, such as the growth of suburbia, the baby boom and opportunities presented by the G.I. Bill, Mr. Anderson looks at life after World War II through a different prism. Optimism is tempered by the specter of death, which paves the way for talk about past lives and time travel.
The movie loses steam by the end -- 137 minutes is a long time to hold or play a series of notes, after all -- although its look and sound are spectacular, thanks to rare 65mm film stock with crisp, rich images and a score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. The period details, as with the maternity tops worn by a pregnant but steely Peggy, seem impeccable.
(Moviegoers who prefer their stories family-friendly should know this is appropriately rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.)
"The Master" revisits some of Mr. Anderson's favorite themes, such as families, real and makeshift, and father figures. But it's less satisfying than 2007's "There Will Be Blood," with its ferocious, electrifying and ultimately Oscar-winning turn by Daniel Day-Lewis.
But there will be Oscar nominations.