Paul Thomas Anderson is slowing down. The director is now 42 years old, and he has three children with actress Maya Rudolph. His last film, the masterful There Will Be Blood, was released a full five years ago; the one before that came another five years earlier. The films that established him, though—Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia—came in on each other’s heels during a fertile three-year window in the late ’90s.
Whatever the reason for Anderson’s more deliberate pace, his films have benefited. While his earlier work shone with a bravura common to many younger artists, and can still be amazingly moving cinema, his later work—calmer, more centered and meatier—feels like the beginning of his best work. It’s the difference between a fireworks display and the steady, nourishing warmth of a well-built fire. (One suspects that Punch Drunk Love, the Adam Sandler film that came between Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, will be the subject of a serious reevaluation at some point.) This week, the director’s latest film continues to add to that legacy.
The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, is set in post-World War II America, when men returning from Europe found themselves dealing with new feelings of emptiness and despair. Our country had no name yet for what they were going through—the horrors of modern warfare were still too new, as was the relentlessly cheery facade of the new American modernity that greeted our soldiers on their return. The time was ripe for something that offered a chance at something more meaningful than the latest chromium doodad.
Enter Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a new quasi-religious movement called The Cause. When he first meets Phoenix’s volatile Freddie, he finds a young man bristling at the expected placidness of mid-century America. Unable to find his footing, Freddie is a drifter floating along on fumes, losing himself however he can, figuratively and literally. In each other the men find something each needs: for Dodd, a willing acolyte eager for structure and discipline, and one not inclined—at first—to consider too deeply the teachings of the older man; for Freddie, a new foundation to help steady his way, and a new direction to light out in. For a time, the pair form a bond that brings The Cause to new heights.
But like any cause built on the teachings of one man—especially a living, breathing, very fallible man—this one soon runs into trouble, and Freddie begins to question if he’s any better than he was before he joined up. (The history of The Cause, of course, bears more than a slight resemblance to that of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.) It’s a dangerous turn to take, especially with Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) keeping a steely eye on the flock.
Also this week: Amherst Cinema kicks off two new film series this week. First up, on Sunday at 7 p.m., is the Hitchcock Center for the Environment Film Series—a longish name that presumably alerts filmgoers that the series is not dedicated to the more familiar Hitchcock of moviedom. This Hitchcock series is named for the 19th-century naturalists, husband and wife, who made their home in the Valley, and the screenings will focus on environmental awareness and understanding.
To kick things off, the wonderful documentary Microcosmos shines a light (and some very impressive macroscopic lenses) on the life cycle of the bugs, beetles and other inhabitants of a typical French meadow. The film is introduced by Laurie Sanders, former host of NEPR’s Field Notes radio program.
The very next night, the Reinventing Tokyo Film Series gets underway with Mr. Thank You, a road movie from Hiroshi Shimizu that focuses on a gentle bus driver and his passengers as they travel to Tokyo from the outlying country. Presented in part by Amherst College to coincide with an exhibition running at the school’s Mead Art Museum, the film is introduced by Timothy Van Compernolle, Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations.
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.