Perhaps the most useful way to describe “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated film that opened Friday, is to say what it isn’t: It’s not a docudrama expose about the invention of Scientology, as many movie industry observers had assumed it would be. It’s not a sprawling study of a tribal subculture in the way that most of Anderson’s previous films — especially “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” — have been. In fact, it’s not like any other movie currently in theaters. It’s a weird, often wonderful, occasionally confounding portrait of mid-20th century America that has garnered critical raves and festival awards but that just as likely will leave some viewers befuddled and bemused.
Talking to Anderson, who sat down for a brief interview after “The Master” made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, one gets the sense that even he isn’t entirely sure what he’s done with it. Soft-spoken and sweet-natured, the 42-year-old writer-director, hailed by many as the finest filmmaker of his generation, often stumbles for words as he talks about making his movie, which stars frequent Anderson rep player Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in galvanizing performances.
“It was scary to begin with,” he says, describing the process of writing and filming “The Master.” “It was sort of like, what exactly are we in search of here, getting these two guys together? We kind of knew that we were in pursuit of something that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, but I think we knew it when we got it.”
The “it” Anderson speaks of is the peculiar interpersonal dynamic that drives “The Master,” between an alcoholic, sexually compulsive World War II veteran named Freddie (Phoenix) who comes under the sway of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a charismatic leader of a nascent religious cult. Throughout the film, which takes place in 1950, the two men vie for control over each other, with Lancaster acting as a surrogate father figure to the rootless Freddie, and Freddie alternately embracing and lashing out against the older man’s attentions.
Fraught with some of the similar father-son anxieties that have threaded through previous Anderson films — most recently 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano — “The Master” finds the director returning to themes even he has trouble articulating. “It’s probably gravity of some kind,” he says, explaining (or not) why his movies usually have highly charged male relationships at their center. “No matter what happens, it keeps coming back to these preoccupations you might have, or whatever.”
Scientology has come in for its share of bad publicity, including an eviscerating article that recently appeared in Vanity Fair about Anderson’s “Magnolia” star, Scientologist Tom Cruise. (At a news conference at the Venice Film Festival, Anderson said that he’d shown “The Master” to Cruise and that, “Yes, we are still friends. The rest is between me and Tom.”) Having extensively researched Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and other nascent religions, Anderson says, he changed his views on the movement while writing “The Master.”