THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, might be more deeply understood as a tale of two egos. We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), while another struggles to distinguish imagination from delusion, his simmering rage emanating perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd). Neither of them knows how to love; both are desperate to be loved. They find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover. They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us in a long time; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.
There are many key moments: The first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; the master holding court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his “knowledge”; the protégé being experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom and driven nearly mad in the process; a science-fictionesque digging for buried treasure on Arizona flatlands that could pass for Mars.