Phoenix The Master (beach)
'The Master'

"The Master" is challenging, gorgeous, and forcefully weird, a critical darling and early Oscar contender, but you already knew that. It's also the fourth film in a great, daring, ambitious project to depict the shadow side of our national life over the course of a century — what might be called Paul Thomas Anderson's "American Quadrilogy."

"There Will Be Blood," "The Master," "Boogie Nights," and "Magnolia" do not seem to have been conceived as a series. They were produced out of order as far as history is concerned, marshalling aesthetic and thematic content that calls to mind Kubrick as well as Altman, Huston alongside Fassbinder. But no less than Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy, which returned to a crime family's Italian and immigrant roots in its second installment, or Gore Vidal's historical novels, which took up "Lincoln" after "1876," Anderson's quadrilogy hangs together as an immense portrait of abused power, physical, economic, religious, political, and sexual. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), near the end of Anderson's most recent film, expresses it best. "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know," he says. "For you would be the first in the history of the world."

Mastery in all its forms is indeed key from the quadrilogy's first moments, as Daniel Plainview's streaked face comes alive in the sparks of his pickax. The hard labor of his quest for mining riches in "There Will Be Blood" ends up pitting him against another form of rough magic, in the person of Holy Roller Eli Sunday, but it begins as an attempt to control the ground on which he stands — even after his derrick in Little Boston has come in, his hands range over blueprints and maps, as though afraid they'll slip from his grasp.

The film's primal, lurid violence suggests an alliance of, and competition between, capitalism and Christianity that would seem too pat if not for the subtle ambivalence of its final sequence: two thwacks of a bowling pin can establish only one kind of mastery. Looking over his empire from a cold, empty California manse, a Xanadu of the Pacific, Plainview unknowingly stares disaster in the face. It is, a title card tells us, 1929. Whether or not he will succumb to the coming Depression, whether or not he is a Charles Foster Kane of the oil fields, "There Will Be Blood" makes clear — in the words of the Byron poem from which it takes it name — that "the king times" are indeed "fast finishing."

Bookended by two dates, 1898 and 1929, Anderson's tale of brutality and greed at the dawn of the "American Century" makes Plainview an implicit emblem of imperial sojourns and rampant profiteering, a gangster of the first order. Similarly, "The Master" uses a remarkably detailed portrait of two men to take up the moral content of World War II and the Cold War. Good intentions given extraordinary power lead, the film suggests, to their own unintended consequences. In a scene that powerfully echoes the end of "There Will Be Blood," Dodd addresses wayward devotee Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) from his seat at a massive desk, light streaming in through the cathedral window behind. It's a belittling, a forced exile no less damning than "I drink your milkshake!": "Free winds and no tyranny for you, huh, Freddie?" Dodd asks, practically sneering.

Framed against the traditional mid-century story of victory, prosperity, and the fight against communism, "The Master" is a deeply misanthropic work of art, in which healers and heroes come to seem victims of their own desires for sex and power. Each of the main characters is an inversion of expectations. Freddie is not a comfortable suburban beneficiary of the G.I. Bill but a damaged shell, swilling poison and chasing tail; Lancaster's dangerous charisma and unwillingness to be questioned is almost McCarthyesque; Dodd's wife, Mary Sue, is no Eisenhower-era housewife, but a sometimes lewd and vulgar authority figure, perhaps the quiet master of them all.  

By the 1970s, Anderson no longer has to offer a revisionist history of American life — the sense of decrepitude and decline that pervades both "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," two films seedy with drugs, sex, broken families, and broken sou