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'The Master' review (****): An extraordinary brain workout

**** (out of four)

It doesn't take an Olympic judge to recognize the degree of difficulty in Paul Thomas Anderson's “The Master,” either in the writer-director’s execution or the audience’s task of processing it.

For anyone who prefers to see a film, call it “cute” and quickly move along, this isn't your movie. Everyone else, prepare to award the full perfect 10.

Five years after the technically exceptional but narratively choppy “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson's ambition grows even larger with “The Master.” This time, the content lives up to the style. The work of the filmmaker behind classics like “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” has grown progressively more elliptical. So while “The Master” may be summarized as the story of a troubled Navy veteran and the controversial religious leader who takes him under his wing, the movie should not be reduced to anything digestible in a minute or a few hours or a day. The more your mind tries to boil it down, the more the movie grows. It is a puzzling, tremendous beast.

Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that would not be a bad bet in a Best Actor pool, plays Freddie, whose sexual appetite is matched only by his taste for booze. This man does not inspire a great deal of confidence; he is shifty, uncertain. When he sneaks onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dodd agrees to forgive the drunken stowaway if Freddie makes another batch of the hard stuff.

Dodd, questioning Freddie about the nervousness he may have picked up during WWII, asks him, “Why all the skulking and sneaking?” Dodd believes he can cure the incurable, and know the unknowable.

As the leader of a group he and his wife (Amy Adams) refer to as The Cause, he submits subjects to a series of repetitive questions known as “processing.” This manipulatively teases out a person's hidden truths, breaking them down to be built back up again. Of course, Dodd focuses not just on now but on always. With a charisma occasionally recalling John Hawkes in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” he says his methods have power over disease and that the answers to current problems are hidden in past lives.

Despite The Cause’s similarities to Scientology, Anderson has denied the story is about Scientology or Dianetics. If the movie has its parallels to L. Ron Hubbard’s work, they're far from the main idea. “The Master” is about so much more, from natural human impulses to parenting techniques to the rebellion of children to the search for guidance to people choosing the wrong path.

With help from another unsettling score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (“There Will Be Blood”), Anderson delivers a film that’s strange but not inaccessible, elusive but not untraceable, complex but always rewarding. Sometimes the emotion boils beneath the surface, yet “The Master” is anything but cold. Beautifully conceived imagery and remarkable, chilling performances guarantee that.

“Leave your worries for a while; they’ll still be there when you get back,” Dodd advises Freddie, in a line not far from one found in Anderson’s “Magnolia”: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.”

Once again, the filmmaker proves himself an expert dissector of broken families and nagging regrets, as Freddie may be saved even as he rejects what he’s being taught. “The Master” is fluid. It is large. And not unlike Dodd's followers, viewers may ultimately consider Anderson and ask, full of awe and curiosity, “What does he know that I don’t?”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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