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Our first few moments in the presence of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) capture the extraordinary power and the isolation of the character. Quell is in the Navy toward the end of World War II, aboard a ship among his fellow seamen and on shore leave, enjoying a break on the beach with the sun high above. But while the others run about and play, building a sand sculpture of a naked female sunbather, Freddie — restless and alone — watches from afar.

When he comes over to the sculpture, he performs a bump and grind, extending the moment past the point of easy humor and fun into something that borders of the primal, and it confuses and embarrasses the others. He goes so far as to dig into the crotch of the sand creation with his hand, imbuing her with a crude vaginal opening. Freddie seeks to transform her into a fully functional woman, a companion that he can relate to, who can ease his loneliness.

From there, he wanders into situations — a military evaluation, a job as a department store photographer, a migrant cabbage cutter — where again, the sense of isolation between Freddie and those he encounters only comes into clearer focus. But he is not only incompatible with others, there’s the seeming irritation that he feels in his own skin. He moves with lurking, halting effort, like his spirit is barely contained in his not-quite rubbery flesh. At a moment, some inner force might burst through his shoulder or rip free of his snarling lip.

What Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of The Master, and the mercurial Phoenix have created here is a portrait of an old god, maybe the last of his kind to walk the Earth.

The end of the war signals the dawn of a new age and the world has no more need for such elemental figures of unlimited passion and fury, but Freddie isn’t about to go quietly into the night. He wants to stick it to life one last time and he does so the only way he knows how — making his own intoxicating brews, fuming and stewing in his juices and raging, raging, raging. And Phoenix is the perfect embodiment of such a mythic type, with his volcanic expressiveness on full display.

To counter such an irresistible force, Anderson needed an immovable object, the dawning new god that would stand ready to replace it and that would be none other than the character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of The Cause, a new movement created whole from the idea that man can tap into his past memories and experiences. Anderson has had to give lip service to The Cause not being his take on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and I would argue that maybe we should look beyond that obvious connection, because Dodd’s story is more than the birth of a cult.

In the contrast that emerges between Dodd and Freddie, we should pay attention to the changing of the guard. Dodd attempts to use his ideas and still-developing philosophy to rein in Freddie, to tame the old god that he possibly realizes that he cannot kill and replace outright. More importantly, it seems that he senses that there is much that he can learn from Freddie.

They meet when Freddie wanders aboard a docked ship that Dodd has borrowed from a rich follower to escape persecution from the forces arrayed against his fledgling movement. Dodd discovers Freddie’s talent for producing liberating libations and soon sees that Freddie has the ability to withstand the intense probings of The Cause’s attempts to break through the mind’s barriers to past memories and self-awareness. Freddie cannot be dominated or contained.

While Dodd marvels at Freddie, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) steps in as the level head that realizes the potential in Freddie to destroy The Cause and she’s unwilling to be seduced by him. If he cannot be broken and reshaped, then he must not be allowed to harm The Cause.

If Hoffman’s Dodd is the con man and dreamer working towards a real belief in his scam, then Adams is the willful presence that keeps him on course. Along with Phoenix, they form a trinity constantly at odds for control of something far bigger than The Cause. Anderson, as writer and director, proves to be the sure-handed master of the big picture, but it is Phoenix who proves that the old gods still wander among us. (R) Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)