The film rises and falls on the magnetic pull between these two, the inexplicable loyalty they feel to each other. We're never fully allowed inside of their bond, in part because Anderson refuses to give viewers a fixed point of emotional identification. A scene in which Dodd sings and dances with a roomful of naked women seems to be a fantasy, but whose? Are these the idle imaginings of antisocial pervert Freddie? Is Dodd practicing the old stage trick of picturing his audience without armor? Or is the following scene, wherein Dodd's wife (Amy Adams) busts his balls while simultaneously offering them mechanical relief, a signal that the apparent male fantasy was in fact a woman-behind-the-man's paranoid delusion?

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Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern. 136 minutes. Rated R.

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Is this all vague enough for you? The film's ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson's use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. The viewing experience, akin to grasping for something just out of reach in a dream or trying to read subtitles through an old pair of glasses, is neatly mirrored by one of Dodd's exercises, in which Freddie is forced to pace a room and describe the same wall and the same window with new language each time. It's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort food pleasure, but that's not Anderson's problem. You've just seen too many movies about incommunicative fuck-ups who manage to break down their defenses at some convenient third-act moment, assuring that order will be restored. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible—or even advisable.

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