The What-the-fuck-? factor is lower here than PUNCH DRUNK LOVE but higher than THERE WILL BE BLOOD — with the stipulation that WTF is not necessarily a bad thing. Take the opening sequence, where sailors out of a Paul Cadmus painting or an Athletic Model Guild fantasy idle on what’s presumably a South Pacific beach awaiting their return home at the end of WWII. The sequence has a serious homo factor, even if only by allusion. It’s fascinating (and effectively shot in “nostalgic” color and light and edited almost like home movies with faraway sound that adds an eerie distance). But how that affects or speaks to what follows I’m not sure. What passes between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix has an explosive charge, not a sexual one. (And yet did I catch something more specific in a mumbled line by Amy Adams while she was jerking Hoffman off into the sink?) About those two big performances: one is showy (Phoenix), full of tics and outbursts, the other internal, inhabited; it’s a nice contrast and a valid one. Maybe it’s the insularity of Hoffman’s performance, however, that leaves you as puzzled about him at the end as at the beginning. (Or more so.) More than a few times The Master himself struck me as an insufferable boor — not charismatic, just annoying. Then came the scenes where Hoffman shouts “PIG FUCK!” at a skeptic, and where he poses for Phoenix’s camera, striking one laughably self-important pose after another, and I thought, it’s a satire, this guy is being lampooned. But then along comes the final scene between Hoffman and Phoenix that seems to take their….. what? relationship? rivalry? duel to the death?… to a higher plane, the plane of Art, and we’re back in WTF land. But pretentious and puzzling though it be, this is original and involving film, with fully A-list production values (although the costumes and sets had me confused for much of the picture about when it was supposed to take place. The correct answer is 1950 — but there was one party scene I thought sure was in the 20’s.) Whatever, THE MASTER Is worth seeing and arguing over. Two days later, it has stayed with me. And I wonder, whenever I see it again, If my reactions will be different. — Jeff Schultz

The opening scene of waters churning behind a ship at sea reveals what is roiling beneath the surface of Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. You see the water and know a ship has been cutting through the waves, but you’re not sure what ship it was, how big it was or whether you missed something. Those are approximately my feelings for this confounding, breathtaking wonderfully acted film. It’s now been three days since I saw THE MASTER and I’m still not entirely sure what I just experienced. It is largely based on the Church of Scientology with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the role of L. Ron Hubbard. He leads The Cause, something of a traveling circus of believers. Their “belief” is our bodies are merely vessels for the soul which can travel back millennia or to other planets. But that is not where this film begins. It begins with Freddie Qwell (Joaquin Phoenix) just out of the Navy, and certainly out of his mind. Through several scenes we see that Freddie cannot hold a job. He’s also a drinker. Not a boozer, a drinker. He drinks everything he can get his hands on. Developing fluid, kerosene, paint thinner. How he’s not dead isn’t fully explained other than “he’s careful”. On the run, he comes upon a party on a yacht and stows away. That’s how he hooks up with Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). The rest of the film explores this obsessive relationship between the two men. It’s obsessive, but not sexual in any way. They are attached at someplace deeper than the hip. The scenes between the two men are mano a mano courses in acting. Every confrontation fairly explodes on screen. No matter how others try to tell Dodd that Freddie is no good for them and their Cause, Dodd cannot give him up, or give up on him. Again, the acting here is simply outstanding. Amy Adams plays Hoffman’s wife, trying to keep him focused on their mission, while also trying to break the spell of Freddie. She’s the anchor trying to keep Dodd grounded. Hoffman and Phoenix will probably cancel each other out for Oscars, but if they could split the award they should, because one wouldn’t be as good without the other. The cinematic choices are equally breathtaking. Actors faces fill the screen in full 70mm, giving us a look not just at them, but inside them. One critic (forgive me for not remembering who) said maybe she would understand THE MASTER better on second viewing. That may also be the case with me. But on first viewing there was a lot to love about this film. And more proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers alive today.– Alan Yudman

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