Paul Thomas Anderson's searchers all wash out from the same starting point: nothing left to lose. So begins The Master, with Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a post-WWII drifter back from Guam after being sectioned-eight from the Navy. Fired from his job as a photographer in a genteel department store, Quell stumbles onto a yacht chartered by the Cause, a cult led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the epitome of culture gone cracked. Dodd squeezes the dotty rich for funds and enlists the dispossessed for muscle, journeying, Mormon-like, from New York City across the country. But the real conflict roils between Quell and Dodd, and in these roles the two actors put in performances not seen since Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in Becket.
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Phoenix is crazy-itchy mad, a simian in a suit. And Hoffman exudes the bonhomie of a cultured Svengali with a cause. And that's not to overlook Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, the maestro's wife and navigator, cold steel while her husband schmoozes as the life of the party. So there's no need to drag The Master into Scientology territory. Anderson spins the DNA of the lost with such dazzle that it doesn't matter if it's true or not; he gets it right about evangelical charisma, a staple of our literature and film. Anderson has achieved his mid-century epic, and in its pure 65mm sumptuousness, the great American movie.