'The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's fascinating film about the religious impulse and the nature of happiness, moves in mysterious ways. Though inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, "The Master" isn't an indictment of him or of any self-
appointed guru. It's a surprisingly compassionate look at two people: A lost sheep and his shepherd.
It's true that Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a command performance as Lancaster Dodd, has Hubbard's debonair hairstyle and grandiloquent diction, smokes the man's favorite brand (Kools) and conducts aggressive interrogations that closely resemble Scientology's "auditing" methods (here dubbed "processing"). But Dodd isn't being mocked or debunked. Writer-director Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") has much bigger ideas than that.
"The Master" focuses primarily on Freddie Quell, a traumatized World War II Navy man played with ferocious physicality by Joaquin Phoenix. Wrecked on homemade hooch, Freddie stumbles onto a yacht and sees Dodd, an odd-acting but prosperous-looking patriarch. Dodd, leading a new movement called The Cause, sees a potential convert. They're opposites: the spiritualist striving for a "state of perfect" and the near-animal with base instincts. And they attract: Against the wishes of Dodd's deceptively pleasant wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), the two become fraternally close, even borderline romantic.
As Freddie falls into Dodd's strange group (the gorgeous, dreamy cinematography comes from Mihai Malaimare Jr.), "The Master" avoids succumbing to its own weight, thanks to Hoffman and Phoenix, who are utterly compelling, endearing and frequently hilarious. They bicker, wrestle, get drunk, stomp off, embrace and start all over again. They really do complete each other.
Still, "The Master" asks a serious question: Could Dodd be both crackpot and savior, bull-slinger and truth-teller? Does the source of happiness matter, as long as you find it? In the end, issues of fraudulence and fakery evaporate as the movie floats into some higher, more ethereal realm.
PLOT A traumatized World War II vet falls under the spell of a Scientology-style guru. RATING R
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Not an indictment of any religion, but a compassionate look at lost souls and the people who claim to hold the answers. Captivating, challenging and powerful.