Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson crafts engrossing, big-canvas character studies, from the cheesy '70s porn star of Boogie Nights and the gritty oilman of early-20th-century America in There Will Be Blood to the interwoven lives of contemporary L.A. in Magnolia. But The Master may go down as one of his most compelling works for two simple reasons: Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
There's the added heat generated by the subject matter -- the inner world of a religion that seems suspiciously like Scientology -- but that would matter little if the performances weren't so riveting.
Set in the period just after WWII, The Master paints a picture of an America in flux as veterans -- some of them mentally broken -- try to wedge themselves back into society. One of them is Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a man lost on a sea of emotional turbulence.
He sabotages his job as a portrait photographer by getting into a brawl with a client. His stab at being a farmworker is cut short by accusations that he tried to poison one of his workmates. The only thing he seems to do well is mix up a particularly powerful brand of homemade hooch -- a concoction of which he drinks far too much.
So he's especially vulnerable when he stumbles into a party for The Cause, a spiritual movement fronted by the charismatic writer Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Dodd sees something in the volatile Quell that is missing from his dispassionate son (Jesse Plemons) or introverted new son-in-law (Rami Malek). Quell, after some struggle, finds in Dodd someone who seems to have the answers to the questions he hasn't even thought to ask himself.
It's this dance of trust and mistrust between the two men that makes The Master fascinating as their relationship evolves into something beyond mere teacher-student. The burly Hoffman has the right sense of pomp and authority to portray Dodd, and he also infuses the character with a spirit of palpable humanity.
But it's Phoenix's showy-but-strong performance that really burns itself into memory. Phoenix is the kind of guy who always comes across as if he's sliding down the knife's edge of sanity anyway, but here -- all lanky arms akimbo, sagging shoulders and stooped posture -- he truly seems like a man bearing the weight of a frightening world on his back.
The two actors get able support from a strong cast, especially Amy Adams as Dodd's strong-willed wife, who knows that she forever will have to stay in the background.
The rare film these days to be shot in 70mm, The Master also sports a gorgeous look, while the score, from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, has a spare, primal beauty.
Despite all that, and the talk of Oscar that has trailed in its wake, The Master is not really a mass-market film. The story is less about a narrative arc with a neat resolution and more about the emotional state of these two men. Also, there's a chilliness to Anderson's approach that makes the film easy to admire but harder to love.
But, long after the lights have come up, Phoenix's performance will stay with you. If there's a master here, it is Phoenix.