Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus The Master draws clear and direct parallels to the formation of controversial religion Scientology, but look past all the provocative headlines and it's a film more concerned with a mesmerising mental and (sometimes) physical wrestle between two bullheaded individuals. This is a bold and ambitious drama about vilified outsiders who may just be kindred spirits.
The story begins at the tail end of World War II as sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) guzzles booze and ambles across beaches and battleships waiting to head home. Agitated by his job as a department store photographer, he drunkenly stumbles onto a boat to gatecrash the wedding of Lancaster Dodd's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers).
Dodd takes Quell under his wing and begins to educate him in the ways of The Cause, a religion based on his theories on past lives and permanent spirits travelling through temporary vessels. Quell's is a mind that Dodd views as easily malleable, and through his 'processing' techniques and training exercises, he attempts to break through the booze-addled brain to forge a new disciple.
In truth, Quell is an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object in Dodd. Through the rapid-fire processing methods, we learn that Quell's father died a drunk and his mother ended up in an asylum.
Though Dodd holds great affection for Quell, he sees him as an animal to be tamed. This tension forms the irresistible dramatic crux of the film - the master/apprentice dynamic plays out more like a tumultuous father/son story as Dodd tries to break through to his protégé. In one scene, Dodd even wrestles Quell to the floor and mocks smacking his behind to exert some paternal discipline.
The Master explores recurring PTA themes - authority, grand delusion, corruption by power - all through a pair of imperious performances from its two leads. Hoffman is able to flit effortlessly from charming and avuncular to terrifying and sinister. Like Quell he is short-tempered, but less violent in his reactions. In one scene, he reacts angrily to a man questioning The Cause's teachings. That Quell later physically assaults the dissenter further illustrates their differing methods. The film is at its best when Hoffman and Phoenix are pitted against each other, notably in Quell's first processing when the vein on Phoenix's head seems primed to pop. A later moment, with Dodd singing 'Slow Boat to China', is laced with menacing undercurrents.
Anderson helms proceedings with an assured directorial hand, using Johnny Greenwood's metronomic score to create a tense and often hypnotic mood. Whether he's filming an intimate character scene or widening the frame (like in a breathtaking desert shot that evokes Omar Sharif's Lawrence of Arabia entrance), the filmmaker's latest never fails to hold the viewer completely in his grasp.
By the end, The Master seems to run a little out of steam, like it's something of an unfinished thought. A trailing ellipsis rather than a full stop might just be the point, though, because this is a film that lingers in the mind and asks questions long after the end credits roll.