In admitting that "Master" Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, offering a new twist on the roiling vulnerability Anderson has always highlighted in their collaborations), the figurehead of a growing faith movement in 1950s America, was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, Paul Thomas Anderson set up expectations of an exposé of the origins of Scientology. Instead, he has delivered a free-form work of expressionism, more room-size painting than biopic, star vehicle, or traditional character study, mirroring Hubbard's story when convenient while strenuously avoiding direct representation. As with Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Anderson takes what he needs from history to recast his own story, yet he has never made a film so coded, so opaque. Dodd teaches a drunk named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) not to apologize for who he is--"a scoundrel"--and gets him to submit to the Master's conversion therapy. His teachings are mostly designed to help followers control their emotions by accessing past experiences, either in their current lives or previous ones. In Freddie, he has a man who chewed through every leash ever clipped to his collar, who attempts to seduce adult women by passing notes ("Do you want to fuck?"), who has never encountered a household or industrial chemical that he hasn't tried to drink. In their first "processing" session, Dodd repeatedly asks Freddie, "Do your past failures bother you?" Can he change? Does he want to? Is this all vague enough for you? The film's ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson's use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. It's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis.
Mon., Sept. 24, 2012