Paul Thomas Anderson’s puzzling, provocative ‘Master’

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Strange friends: Joaquin Phoenix
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Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature, “The Master,” is intelligent, ambitious and cause for celebration — but not quite the masterpiece suggested by all the buzz.

To begin, it’s difficult to tell what the movie, set in the early 1950s, is really about.

Some have hinted that it’s about the origins of the Church of Scientology. Indeed, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a captivating performance as the so-called “master,” Lancaster Dodd, who tells his followers that life’s problems can be solved by examining their past lives.

But the movie actually focuses on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a misfit with a war-related stress disorder and a violent streak.

Phoenix gives a positively demented performance, freakishly skinny and carrying himself with a strange twist. Half of his face is squished shut, like Popeye’s; it’s the essence of cartoonish.

Dodd befriends the down-and-out Freddie when they bond over some of Freddie’s bizarre homemade liquor — though what keeps them friends is a mystery.

Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), family and followers don’t quite know what to make of Freddie, either.

Likewise, it’s hard to know if Freddie believes the master’s spiel, or indeed, if even Dodd himself believes it.

Naysayers sometimes appear to offer rebuttals — and Freddie beats them up.

Though the film’s subject isn’t entirely clear, it is clear that Anderson knows how to make a movie that looks great, and one that seems like it ought to be great.

The film’s slow pace; awesome use of space, movement and color; and the haunting continuity of Jonny Greenwood’s score indicate greatness. So does Hoffman’s performance, which is similar in a way to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.”

However, earlier Anderson films, such as “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” are less self-consciously intellectual and more powerfully emotional. Stripped down to their essence, actors Burt Reynolds, Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise were showcased at their best.  

In “The Master,” the actors are stuck behind thick facades, and if themes such as friendship or laughter are supposed to resonate, they do not.

Yet if the movie is about something else hidden beneath its majestic tapestry — like the search for answers that can never be learned, and the discovery of the small things that can — then “The Master” is a fascinating puzzle yet to be solved.

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