Paul Thomas Anderson knows how to pull the crazy out of his actors: Tom Cruise’s yelling fit as a self-help guru in “Magnolia.” Adam Sandler’s window smashing as a plunger salesman in “Punch Drunk Love.” His oeuvre is rife with crazy, and “The Master,” which debuts in New York today, is no exception.
Crazy can mean many things, though. To be precise, Anderson’s movies are not crazy in a self-satisfied, nihilistic, stylized way. That’s more Tarantino. They also aren’t Nolan-esque psychological thrillers that bluntly ask big questions.
Anderson’s craziness is more stochastic, manifesting itself as a bizarre fight or an inscrutable line, as when Daniel Day Lewis hollers, “I drink your milkshake!” before beating someone to death with a bowling pin in “There Will Be Blood.”
Unlike Tarantino, a deeper meaning flows beneath the surfaces of Anderson’s movies, and his anomalous flashes seem to touch it directly. Unlike with Nolan, the contact is oblique—no “Inception”-like spinning top at the end asks if reality is a dream.
Instead of a top, Anderson gives us Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the recklessly confident founder and leader of “The Cause.” The character is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, but seeing the movie as a mere echo of Hubbard’s life would be a mistake. Dodd meets drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, unstable veteran with the outward makings of a nymphomaniac, and takes him under his wing.
The meat of “The Master” lies in Quell and Dodd’s interactions. What Anderson really pulls out of his characters (and out of the chemical grains of his film—“The Master” is the first movie in years to be shot on expensive 65mm stock) is something remarkably lifelike: They are contradictory and messy, yet there are patterns to them that belie greater meaning.
This is why you shouldn’t watch “The Master” thinking of it as “that Scientology Movie.” It’s not a chronicle or castigation (or glorification, for that matter) of any particular religious movement.
It is many other things, though, including a rough grappling with the question of what constitutes meaning itself. Watching Dodd try to cure the ironically named Quell through “processing” is case in point. Dodd is making things up as he goes along. He is clearly out of touch with the rest of human reality. He is a megalomaniac, certain of his own knowledge, and insistent on humanity’s ability to control the same emotions that rule him. Quell is violent, disturbed, and drowning in his turbulent sexuality.
Yet in seeing the devotion of Dodd’s followers and watching his cockamamie pseudoscience at work on Quell, there is a strength of belief whose depth alone makes it convincing. When a scientist aggressively questions Dodd on his assertion that processing cures leukemia, it is the scientist who seems foolish for telling another human what is meaningful and what is not.
It seems, eventually, that Dodd’s determination and Quell’s faith are both so immense as to be unconquerable. In spite of their ineptitude, their will seems too great too fail. What’s crazy about Anderson’s stories is that as his characters’ souls stare up at us from the depths of their self-waste, we stare back finding ourselves unwilling and unable to judge.