Entertainment Entertainment Movies

'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

 

Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.

 

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • City lists 'problem landlords' on website
    City lists 'problem landlords' on website

    Chicago's Building Department published its first "problem landlords" list on its website Monday night in an attempt to crack down and publicly shame apartment building owners into providing tenants with basic services such as heat, hot water and working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

  • Chicago brothers who infiltrated cartel given 14 years in prison
    Chicago brothers who infiltrated cartel given 14 years in prison

    After more than six years in protective custody, the twin brothers from Chicago's West Side didn't look the part of hard-core drug traffickers when they walked into a public courtroom Tuesday for the first time since flipping on the notoriously violent Sinaloa cartel.

  • 3 wounded in South Side shootings
    3 wounded in South Side shootings

    Two men and a woman were wounded in shootings Tuesday afternoon and evening in the city's Park Manor, Bronzeville and Morgan Park neighborhoods.

  • Emanuel, mayoral challengers face off for first time
    Emanuel, mayoral challengers face off for first time

    The first face-to-face meeting of the Chicago mayor’s race featured Rahm Emanuel offering a measured defense of his first term against a barrage of attacks from challengers who assailed his record on neighborhood development and crime and even his temperament.

  • 'Ghostbusters' reboot scares up cast: Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, Jones
    'Ghostbusters' reboot scares up cast: Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, Jones

    Director Paul Feig's "Ghostbusters" reboot has found its leading ladies. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon are in talks to star in the Sony comedy about a quartet of paranormal exterminators, The Times has confirmed.

  • CTA rider robbed at Taser-point: police
    CTA rider robbed at Taser-point: police

    A 23-year-old CTA rider was threatened with a Taser and robbed of her cellphone Friday as she transferred from the Red Line to the Green Line at the Roosevelt "L" station, police said Tuesday.

Comments
Loading