TORONTO — Although Paul Thomas Anderson insists that all similarities are coincidental, his astounding new film The Master has riled up Scientologists. So much so that the Weinsteins added extra security to the New York premiere last Tuesday.
The religious group's annoyance is understandable. Set in the post–World War II era, the film follows the misadventures of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, shell-shocked ex-sailor who somehow ends up on a yacht with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic, paranoid Master of the title, founder of a religion that preaches psychic healing through regression to past lives and employs a procedure suspiciously like Dianetics.
But at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, Anderson insisted that he was interested more in understanding people than in exposés. "I don't consider this to be about a cult. It's an opportunity to tell a story. The postwar period was a time of tremendous optimism. But how can you feel great when there's been so much death? So people want to know what happens after you die. The Master says that accessing previous lives is possible. That's what I wrote the story around."
Freddie is one such wounded soul, and then some. In one of his first scenes, he's shown humping a sand sculpture of a naked woman. Then he jerks off into the ocean. And that's him in a good mood. When he gets riled up on the joy juice he cooks up out of paint thinner, he can get, as Anderson puts it, "unpredictable."
Both Phoenix and Hoffman put in performances that won them Golden Lions for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. They're at their peak when their characters' love/hate relationship comes to a head after they're locked in adjacent cells. They rage at each other in the kind of cacophony that only actors who know the difference between passion and scenery chewing can achieve.
"They're both heavy hitters, but they're also team players," Anderson said about his stars. "A young actor might try to dominate, but a mature one knows when to back down. Ultimately, it's more fun when you play together in the service of something else. As opposed to a dick-matching contest."
Speaking of heavy hitting, at one point in the jailhouse scene, Phoenix's rampage seems about to cause him bodily harm. Anderson kept the camera rolling. "True, you do have to be concerned for your actor's safety," he said. "But you also have to make sure to light the scene properly."