Paul Thomas Anderson's latest may lack the visceral intensity of There Will Be Blood, but it is the fluid, evocative work of a filmmaker in his prime.
The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's elegant, evocative, and enigmatic new film, opens with a shot of deep blue waters churning into egg-white foam. A flood-swollen river, perhaps? The spumed base of some remote falls? When the shot recurs later in the film, we will discover it to be of the wake of a ship--two different ships, in fact, at two moments in time. But the meaning of the image will long since have become clear: volatility and flux, rootlessness and unrest.
In short order we are introduced to the human embodiment of these traits, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy seaman in the Pacific theater during the closing days of World War II. We watch Freddie, prematurely creased and frayed, as he siphons shots of rocket fuel to allay his alcoholism; we watch as he feigns copulation with the sand sculpture of a naked woman his shipmates have carved into the beach, then follows up his performance by masturbating into the surf.
These compulsions, carnal and pharmacological, continue to define Freddie after war's end. Plagued by PTSD, he is presented with Rorschach blots: "a pussy," he responds, "a cock going into a pussy," "a cock, but upside down." When he takes a job as a department store portrait-taker, he screws a shop-girl in the darkroom and mixes himself cocktails from his photographic chemicals. Fired from the job for drunkenly assaulting a customer, he finds work as a cabbage picker, where his ever-more-toxic intoxicants almost kill a fellow laborer. Desperate, half-conscious, he clambers one night onto a party yacht about to weigh anchor.