What’s immense and perpetually restless, shifting to the eye and absorbing to the mind? The ocean. The human spirit, in its Faustian self-apprehension. Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master. Here is a movie that gazes into the churning waves as if looking into a mirror, while making dirty-minded, farcical tragedy out of the wish that we, too, might be boundless and uncontrolled.

Now that this tremendous whatzit has had a few weeks to pound and roar through the theaters, and maybe wash away some of the prerelease publicity, I hope that people have become more interested in what The Master puts on the screen, and less in the question of whether it’s a history of Scientology with the names disguised. The so-called Master of the title, a character known to the legal authorities as Lancaster Dodd, is a peddler of psychotherapeutic claptrap and pseudoscientific mythology in post–World War II America—so, yes, he has a lot in common with L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd, too, has a fat book to sell (it’s called The Cause, rather than Dianetics) and travels with a wife named Peggy (Hubbard’s first wife was named Polly), with whose aid and incitement he teaches that we must awaken to our true nature as billion-year-old spirits.

In 1950, when most of the movie takes place, Hubbard had not yet fully revealed that Homo sapiens is a battleground of disembodied immortals; but the film’s fudging of the historical record doesn’t really matter, because Anderson is no more interested in making a biopic of Hubbard than he was concerned in 2007 to make a faithful adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! In There Will Be Blood, Anderson replaced Sinclair’s folksy, businesslike wildcatter with a Byronic devil, locked in a struggle to the death with geology and Christian evangelism. In The Master, he puts a Hubbard-like figure into the path of a troubled drifter named Freddie Quell and has them wrestle—lovingly, obsessively, furiously—as if they were one another’s fate.

The Master begins with Freddie—or rather with the elements and institutions into which this initially nameless character cannot fit. First we see, from overhead, a blue and white turmoil of waves, which fills the entire screen; then a close-up of level, wary eyes, which seem not so much protected as cut off beneath a military helmet; and then, as if situated between these two extremes, the back of a stooped, shadowed figure who is hacking at coconuts on a beach. It is immediately obvious that this man finds no easy middle ground between an indifferent, chaotic universe and isolated consciousness. He lifts his blade from a coconut and lowers it experimentally toward his wrist. In a form of play, which is nevertheless a struggle, he grapples on the beach with another man. (They are Navy seamen in the Pacific.) He happens by a group of sailors who have sculpted a naked woman in the sand, and in the first of many instances of going too far, he mimes making love to the figure, humping away long after the others have stopped laughing.

His outlandish behavior is kept at a distance in these initial, disconnected shots; there is neither dialogue nor a clear view of the man’s face as he masturbates openly on the beach, or when he breaks into the ship’s torpedo room on V-J Day to drain a celebratory drink from the motors. He starts as an undefined disturbance; but a brusque energy in Anderson’s rhythm carries you along with him. (Jonny Greenwood, the soundtrack composer, adds to the effect with a loping jazz-bass figure overlaid by clacking percussion.) By the time you look at last into the face of this point-of-view character and see that he’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, in all his saturnine and mercurial imbalance, the off-kilter opening montage is over. Anderson has cut from the South Pacific to a VA hospital and changed his visual style.

John Huston’s 1946 documentary Let There Be Light might come to mind during these hospital scenes. The images are now straightforward, with close-ups of haggard, unshaven men; the few official pronouncements are as flat as Nebraska. (To encourage an assembly of the shell-shocked, an unseen counselor advises them to open a gas station, or get a little piece of land and raise chickens. Anything to make the spirit soar.) The brief scenes of the main character’s therapy sessions are similarly matter-of-fact—much like those in Let There Be Light, except for the lack of any evidence of healing. The man responds to questions with a candor that might inspire hope, if his hollow-cheeked head didn’t tilt as if bolted on wrong, if he didn’t abruptly laugh for no reason, if his eyes weren’t glassy from a few cocktails of rubbing alcohol.

The issue that most concerns the VA is whether this man has seen, as reported, a “vision” of his mother. He reacts to the question as if it were a bug that he wanted to shake off, at which point the appearance of The Master suddenly changes again, to show the postwar visions that do float before him: toothy, perfectly groomed families, radiant in their salaried comfort, and a deluxe young woman, wrapped in fur, who glides around a grandiose columned interior to an Ella Fitzgerald tune.

* * *

Illusions of a freshly affluent America: the interior is the main floor of a department store, the young woman is paid to model the fur (which is dyed rabbit, to judge from the price) and the middle-class people look so happily airbrushed because the man has just photographed them in the store’s portrait salon. He, too, now looks plausibly middle-class behind his camera, even though the sport jacket he’s wearing must have been offered to him at cost when it failed to sell. By sharing some of the moonshine that he cooks in the darkroom, the man succeeds in groping the merchandise model. But he blows the date with her, when he gets it; he blows the portrait studio job, spontaneously picking a fight with a plump, middle-aged businessman; and when he resorts to farm work he blows that job, too, running across the cabbage fields in a blue dawn to escape the wrath of his fellow migrants.

In some movies, these forays into the pretensions of many white people after the war, and into the obscure menial labor of many of the darker-skinned, might have led the protagonist toward a political awakening. The Master is not one of those films. It is interested in consciousness more than conscience, which is why Anderson’s camera roams so thrillingly through these scenes. The man we’re following experiences the world as a carelessly dropped string that had been wrapped about him and then was whipped loose. All he can do now is spin around it like a top.

At the end of this section of The Master, the camera continues to track the man as he stumbles along a road at twilight in his splay-footed, hunched-over gait, down to the docks in San Francisco Bay and past a white twin-decked yacht lit up for a rumba party. Without announcing himself, apparently without thinking, he boards the ship in an ungainly leap—and with that the most mobile sequence of the movie comes to an end. Anderson is about to settle into long periods of a tense but static shot-countershot scheme, because the drifter is now going to meet the self-styled “commander” of this ship: the Master.

* * *

He is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is sleek and round where the drifter is pinched and craggy, grandiloquent and full-throated where the other is choked and terse, blond not brunette, mustached not clean-shaven, jovial not sullen, prancing not shuffling. One is less than nothing: a penniless, lonely stowaway. The other, by his own pleased account, is “many things,” including a husband, father, scientist, author and leader of a surprisingly young and ardent crew.

Strange things happen when the minus meets this plus. First, the minus gains a name—Freddie Quell—and a modicum of personal history, as if he had needed to come into contact with Dodd to have an identity at all. Second, Freddie begins in Dodd’s presence to relive his earlier experiences. By this, I don’t just mean that memories stir. The film itself begins to loop back in odd ways. The “processing” that Dodd begins to conduct on Freddie recalls the interviews and tests in the VA hospital, except that Freddie treats these new sessions as games or contests. Dodd himself recalls the businessman in the photo studio—the one who wound up on the floor—except that Freddie now shows curiosity, not aggression, toward the plump and well-satisfied figure. There is also a telling coincidence involving a memory of Freddie’s, about being in love with a redheaded teenage girl with Cupid’s-bow lips, who miraculously had seemed attainable. Now that Freddie has been provisionally accepted on board, he finds himself in the company of Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who is redheaded, has Cupid’s-bow lips and is absolutely off-limits.

One begins to suspect that nothing in The Master happens according to cause and effect, even when the conventions of psychological realism would seem to account for it. The bond between Dodd and Freddie, for example, might be explained as a case of mutual need. Freddie is looking for someone to take him in, and Dodd, like many other men who want to be respected, nevertheless likes to let rip with a scoundrel—especially one who supplies him with proprietary high-octane beverages. (Hoffman, though magnificent throughout the film, radiates a special joy in these drinking scenes. This is a force-of-nature performance, which happily has a lot more of nature in it than force.) But as Dodd and his group move on to New York City and then Philadelphia, the relationships among the characters become less explicable, the film’s doublings and coincidences more puzzling, the events (and the mythology surrounding them) more crazy. It’s to be expected that Dodd’s affluence will turn out to be fraudulent at best, and felonious at worst; it’s entirely credible that Peggy, always buttoned up to the collar in her prairie schoolmarm dresses, will prove to be the ruthless empire-builder of the group, and a superbly contemptuous sexual manipulator. What can’t be anticipated is that Freddie will make himself into the violent goon that Peggy wants for Dodd, and will do so without being asked—as if destiny had indeed carried him to the group—to fulfill a purpose that remains obscure.

And then there are the hallucinations. Even without being driven toward hysteria by Dodd’s spiritual exercises, even without absorbing the mesmeric lectures about wounded spirits trapped in animal bodies, Freddie does receive visions. His habit of drinking paint thinner probably helps; but so does his low, horny cunning as a man who understands that to Dodd, all the women around him might as well be naked. Freddie sees them that way himself, at least once. Maybe he’s seen, in his delirium, everything else in The Master, too. The film as a whole presumably cannot be happening in his mind, because Freddie is absent from some scenes; but there’s no telling how far his fantasies might stretch. Anderson draws no lines to separate the most improbable events from the film’s more mundane occurrences, which at any rate aren’t all that normal. Besides, Dodd’s theories and methods, which ought to be of some relevance here, turn on the question of whether memory is literally a recollection—a gathering back from the past—or rather is a form of imagination. Who can say whether this drama of the American 1950s is recalled by Freddie or dreamed up by him?

I know only that Freddie Quell, like the protagonist of Anderson’s breakout feature film, Boogie Nights (1997), is a solitary, ingenuous man who temporarily finds a home in a group that is makeshift and marginal, yet resembles the larger society that disparages it. The pornographers in Boogie Nights had supportive friends, entrepreneurial success, show-biz glamour and plenty of sex: just what a lot of Americans in the 1970s valued most. The cult-builders of The Master claim to have what a lot of Americans wanted in the 1950s: scientific breakthroughs, philanthropic ideals, reliable methods of self-improvement and the shocking truth about a vast conspiracy. All that, and a paterfamilias, too. The difference between Boogie Nights and The Master is that the protagonist here is in no way an innocent, and his story comes to no closure. Boogie Nights reached its climax in the outburst of violence that is always so convenient for filmmakers. At the climax of The Master, though, Anderson dares to offer only a song, which is motivated by nothing, explains nothing and does nothing, other than perfectly sum up a love and a struggle that can’t be resolved.

They can’t be resolved because Freddie, who “doesn’t want to get better,” aspires to be the only man ever “to live without a master.” So say Peggy and Dodd, who of course might be wrong. Maybe Freddie goes away from them because he just wants to get laid, or return to his mother’s breast. Or maybe Dodd is the bourgeois quack Mephistopheles to a drunk and unlettered American Faust, who breaks his snares at the film’s end and finds a moment in which he could linger—though probably not for long.

Stuart Klawans last reviewed David France’s How to Survive a Plague, Heidi Ewing and Rache Grady’s Detropia and Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage.