"The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's first film since 2007's triumphant "There Will Be Blood," is a dazzling, perplexing, adventurous, hypnotic act of filmmaking. It's enigmatic yet resonant, with breathtaking performances and indelible images -- Anderson has a virtuoso eye for staging, camera placement and color. It's a must-see for serious film lovers and a steep challenge for everyone else.
The story follows the standard design for Anderson's films. It concerns a lost young man, a corrupt father figure and the struggle for possession of a soul. The older man, a courteous gentleman, has been played in the past by Philip Baker Hall, Burt Reynolds, Jason Robards and Daniel Day-Lewis. Here he is Philip Seymour Hoffman playing 1950s cult leader Lancaster Dodd, a roguish snake-oil salesman who promises freedom through submission. Those familiar with Scientology will find many parallels, but the new religion is the context of the story, not its substance.
You can see how Dodd could win a following. He tells his followers that the Cause can lift their emotional traumas and physical ailments -- even establish world peace -- through time-travel hypnosis therapy. Freddie Quell, an unstable drifter played with volcanic intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, joins Dodd's movement by accident, drunkenly stumbling aboard the yacht of a cult supporter.
As inarticulate and violent as Dodd is suave and manipulative, Freddie becomes the master's surrogate son and the bare-knuckled enforcer who silences his critics. Why do these men need each other? Part of Dodd's spiel deals with the need to rise above our animal nature, and Freddie is an ideal test case.
The film's South Pacific opening resembles an Eden-like creation myth. At an island layover on Freddie's return from World War II, he is all about sensual pleasure. He mimes making love to a pin-up girl that his fellow sailors sculpted out of sand, pleasures himself in the breaking surf and makes moonshine out of torpedo fuel. It's a while before we hear him speak. When he does, words tumble out in a crack-brained, jittering rhythm. His discharge officer explains that he may be suffering a "nervous condition" brought on by combat.
His civilian life is a stew of shame, sin and impulsive brutality. When Dodd meets Freddie he sees prime exorcism material and a substitute for his own adult son who dismisses the Cause as flim-flam nonsense.
Dodd is no one-dimensional puppet master, however. Hoffman's commanding performance is worthy of the young Orson Welles, a zesty spice mix of arrogance, generosity, gravitas and horseplay. He regards Freddie with real affection and a paternal pride. When the pair take turns racing a motorcycle on desert salt flats, Dodd cheers Freddie on, as a father would encourage his son to top his own accomplishments.
Amy Adams has the largest of the film's secondary female roles. She plays Dodd's new wife, prim, hugely pregnant and as steely as Lady Macbeth. It's she who insists that the Cause's adversaries be continually attacked. It's a familiar element in Anderson's films that men are deeply alienated from women, and the theme recurs here. In the only act of physical intimacy we see between Dodd and his wife, he is at the mercy of her mind control and manipulation in a cold, sterile white porcelain bathroom. She senses a threat to all they've built in the ever-inebriated Freddie.
Anderson's films defy facile interpretation. Having seen it just once, I'm not sure I grasp it. Is it the richly nuanced character study it appears to be or a mythic wrestling match between id and superego? I'm uncertain if the film's final scenes should be interpreted as dreams or reality.
I'm sorry I can't re-create the high-wire thrill of seeing "The Master" for the first time, but I'm certain that each repeat viewing will reveal something new.