The films of Paul Thomas Anderson concern odd “families,” people who collect around an idea or profession or a bond of necessity — the porn industry (“Boogie Nights”), a driven oil man who adopts a son (“Let There Be Blood”) or a loose collection of characters that suggest a theme (“Magnolia”).
His latest film, “The Master,” gathers its characters around one of the many self-realization cults that sprung up after the trauma of World War II to attract restless souls who wondered about their very existence.
Anderson conceives his films on a big operatic scale, neither asking for nor giving any quarter as the movie comes at you with an aggressive fury of bold images and sharply defined, charismatic characters.
There is always less here than meets the eye, though, and “The Master” is no exception. The film circles the idea of a pseudo-spiritual movement called The Cause without ever really coming to terms with it. The movie is a hollow epic that searches for a big bang yet ends in a whimper.
The movie mistakes sprawl — geographic, dramatic, emotional — for significance. It travels a long road, so long that you’re startled at the end to realize everything seems to take place in the single year of 1950. But it winds up nowhere.
The cast is large but only three actors carry any weight. The roles are showy, though. The central figure is not the cult’s guru but rather his most trying acolyte, an aberrational ex-Navy seaman named Freddie who drifts into the orbit of the Master by accident.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie with all the bells and whistles of the acting profession. He hunches his back forward and thrusts his elbows out as if in a permanent lurch. All clothes fit him badly.
He walks in a slow stagger, partially because he’s a boozer but it also seems like he would give anything to crawl out of that body and into another. He talks out of the side of his mouth and twists his face into a dark scowl that never fades even when he laughs.
He stows away on a wedding-party boat in San Francisco, where when he’s sober the next day he meets the father of the bride. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is the leader and founder of The Cause. His wife Peggy is played by Amy Adams, the final member of the film’s acting triumvirate.
Hoffman works away from all notions you might bring to the movie about a charismatic religious leader. He’s not a fiery Elmer Gantry. Rather there’s a slyness about Lancaster. It’s as if he is daring anyone to call him a fraud.
He knows he must be all three rings of a circus act but he goes about this quietly. His eyes moist and his skin florid, he mesmerizes his followers with dialogue and diction. But he is in earnest — to the point he has begun to believe his own mythology.
The Cause embraces a pseudo-science that allows its adherents to travel back in time to earlier memories and even memories of past lives, which they must relinquish to gain wellness.
There’s a hint of Dianetics here but writer-director Anderson neatly fabricate his own religion, one that never mentions the word “God.”
Lancaster takes to Freddie because Freddie has mastered one task in life — the ability to concoct outrageously potent and fiery liquors. He also sees this newcomer as his great challenge: Can he make Freddie commit to The Cause?
The movie quickly devolves into a seduction of Freddie by Lancaster that never quite culminates in conquest. Freddie is too mentally unbalanced for one thing. He may even see through the Master but never admits it to himself. Indeed, the unstable man sets out to physically harm any who crosses the Master.
I can do no better in describing Peggy than lifting from press notes that describe her as Lady Macbeth. She sits quietly in a room where her husband performs so her strings are invisible. She monitors him and if need be mentors him.
She sees no room for Freddie in the act. She sees only his self-destructiveness, which may harm The Cause.
The film contains scenes that unsettle but don’t fit into any sweeping portrait of this period or cult. In a home belonging to a devotee (Laura Dern in a very minor role), suddenly every woman at the gathering is stark naked while the men remain fully attired. It’s a “what the —?” moment that serves little if any purpose.
The movie rambles from the South Pacific to California and a farm field, then to Manhattan, Philadelphia and finally England. Shooting in the nearly discarded Panavision 65mm film format, Anderson makes everything look like relics of 1950s cinema.
(That 70mm projection is causing the Weinstein Co. all kinds of problems finding cinemas that can accommodate the format. The press screening in L.A. had to be held at the Cinematheque’s Aero Theater in Santa Monica.)
The film is terrific to look at and contains an astonishing symphonic score by Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist and composer who scored “There Will Be Blood” as well. The music plays with dissonance and jazz riffs yet its lushness gives sharply contrasting moods to the imagery like no recent film I can recall.
For all the realism in David Crank and Jack Fisk’s authentic production design and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s sharply focused cinematography, the final chapter in “The Master” seems almost metaphorical.
Maybe it’s a dream sequence following a surprisingly muted break-up of Freddie and Lancaster, which in itself seems like a dramatic misstep for a film aiming for greatness.
Does the Master really summon Freddie to his new school in England. Did Freddie really get there and does that final confrontation take place?
By this time more than a few viewers may be too weary to care. Nearly every sequence is drawn out to give the actors space to perform. For Anderson is generous to a fault with his actors. He lets them have their heads and they act with abandon.
You can always see them acting, but at least in the cases of Lancaster and Peggy these are people who are always “on” anyway: The whole point is that their characters are actors.
Freddie though is simply an erratic and troubled soul. He is drawn to The Cause for the very reason it ultimately repels him: It’s a community he wants to feel a part of. Then, like Groucho Marx, he realizes he can’t join any club that would have him as a member.
Opens: September 14, 2012 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production company: Annapura Pictures/Ghouldari Film Co.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Jillian Bell, Rami Malek, Kevin J. O’Connor, W. Earl Brown
Director/screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Executive producers: Ted Schipper, Adam Somner
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designers: David Crank, Jack Fisk
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
R rating, 137 minutes