For sheer ambition alone, "The Master" towers over everything else that has dotted Hollywood's cinematic landscape in 2012. Here is an example of a great filmmaker and several terrific actors working at the peak of their powers.
In recent months, much has been written about the secretive process through which the film has been rolled out, the fact that director Paul Thomas Anderson shot the picture with rare 65mm film stock and that its story chronicled the birth of one of the past century's most controversial religions.
But audiences may be surprised to discover that "The Master" is not an expose of Scientology. The film's cult, which bears some similarities to the religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard, is merely a jumping off point for a fascinating epic about a symbiotic relationship between two vastly different men adrift in post-World War II America.
The film, which explores whether a person's nature is fixed or can be molded, is a highly ambiguous work that neither provides answers to its own questions or, arguably, concludes its story. And yet, the film left me transfixed by its visual beauty, astounding performances and virtuoso filmmaking.
As the picture opens, we meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a severely damaged World War II veteran whose flask contains cocktails mixed with everything from film developing chemicals to paint thinner.
After being fired from his department store photographer job and chased away from another gig chopping cabbage with migrant workers, Freddie stumbles upon a boat where a wedding is taking place.
The father of the bride turns out to be Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the blustery leader of a burgeoning religion known as "The Cause" who finds in Freddie a kindred spirit, despite the fact that the two men couldn't be any different. Dodd, a self-described "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher," is the epitome of self-control, while Freddie is viewed as a wild "animal."
Although the two men's personalities are frequently at odds, Dodd considers Freddie his protege and muse, while Freddie views Dodd as a savior, of sorts, even after eventually realizing that he is also a charlatan.
As a director, Anderson's films have often revolved around troubled father-son scenarios ("There Will Be Blood" and "Magnolia") or stories about an outsider being taken in by a tightly knit, but dysfunctional, family ("Boogie Nights")."The Master" encompasses both story lines, but each is given a fresh spin.
The film, which was shot in 65mm and screened in 70mm, is breathtaking to view and filled with one remarkable scene after another. Its cast—Phoenix, Hoffman, Amy Adams as Dodd's wife and Laura Dern as a fervent supporter, to name a few—is spectacular.
Phoenix, who sinks deep into Freddie's character, gives the type of intense go-for-broke performance that reminded me of the best work by Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Daniel Day Lewis. Hoffman's portrayal is more understated, but equally as impressive.
This is easily one of the year's best films. For American movies, it's been a year mostly lacking in ambition. "The Master" nearly single-handedly makes up the difference.
"The Master" plays at BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave., from now through Oct. 4. Check BAM's website for showtimes.