On the evidence of Phoenix’s literally bruising performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliantly directed yet schematically vague The Master, audiences will be wondering if the actor is okay, both physically and psychologically.
As a traumatized, multiply addicted World War II veteran in search of something magical to salve his wounds, Phoenix is feral, fearless and fascinating. He tears up the screen and, in some scenes, every prop on it.
Anderson and his cast have been giving coy interviews where they neither deny nor confirm that the movie is based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. As written and played here, though, that’s immaterial; it’s more resonant of a big, scandalous novel from the Fifties that exposes the underbelly of America - in this case, a cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (played with unctuous relish by Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his latest project, the broken soul of one Freddie Quell (Phoenix).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would be the current diagnosis for what’s keeping Freddie from finding any kind of success or contentment. For starters, he’s as hot-tempered as a rattlesnake and consistently flying into rages. He loses one job as a department store photographer for throttling a customer and has to leave his next gig in a cabbage field because he may have poisoned a co-worker with his signature drink: a combustible, brain-deadening mix of paint thinner, gasoline or whatever’s handy. He takes two steps forward and fifteen back.
One fateful night, he invites himself on board a moored yacht ablaze with festivity, where Dodd, his wife, Peggy (a bristly, at times frighteningly self-righteous Amy Adams), and a couple dozen of his followers are celebrating the imminent release of his book, “The Cause,” intended to guide its followers to a thinly defined “state of perfection.” Because Freddie works the periphery of any room like an abused pit bull hungry for both provocation and attention, he doesn't go unnoticed. One of Dodd’s first comments to him is the understated “You’ve wandered from the path,” and soon Freddie's sucked into Dodd’s world.
After an intensely moving, thrillingly acted 20-minute tour de force scene where Dodd puts Freddie through a grueling Q-and-A called “processing,” Freddie becomes an intimate member of Dodd’s posse. He's charged with protecting and validating Dodd’s inflated sense of self and the barbs of his detractors, and Dodd becomes father figure, teacher, and a beacon of light into Freddie’s dark, dank moods.
What the movie ultimately means Anderson keeps close to the vest. Freddie could represent a wounded America. Or a battle-scarred Everyman. All theorizing aside, it’s perfectly acceptable that Freddie and Dodd are simply a pair of magnetic, complicated characters in a highly charged, beautifully shot film that is certainly one of the best and most artful of 2012.