The conventional wisdom on Joaquin Phoenix is that his devotion to his work is rivaled in its intensity only by his aversion to promoting it. For the world premiere of his new film, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, at the Venice Film Festival, Phoenix flinched from photographers on the red carpet and, at the movie's press conference, fidgeted, smoked and barely spoke. A week later, at the Toronto Film Festival, he skipped the press conference altogether. It could be argued that, in a metaphysical sense, Phoenix also skipped his infamous promotional engagement on Late Show with David Letterman in February 2009. "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight," Letterman said to his puffy, disoriented guest, who mumbled behind dark glasses and a heavy beard and at one point stuck his gum under Letterman's desk.
By all accounts, Phoenix, 37, values the element of surprise, so it's a delightful surprise when he sits down for an interview on the day of his Toronto no-show and performs wholly against press-tour type: open, congenial, totally engaged. He has made three films since concluding the yearlong performance-art project that reached its apotheosis on Letterman, recounted in the 2010 quasi-documentary I'm Still Here (directed by Phoenix's brother-in-law and fellow actor Casey Affleck), wherein a hapless, hirsute and drug-huffing version of Phoenix announces his retirement from acting in favor of a doomed attempt at a hip-hop career.
At the time, this gonzo stunt, with its shades of Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen, had the markings of career suicide. For Phoenix, creative destruction was the point. "I'd just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me," he says. "I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting."
There is much that feels brand-new about The Master (in wide release Sept. 21), Phoenix's first fiction feature in four years. In terms of structure, characterizations and narrative payoffs, the film simply doesn't behave the way the viewer might expect it to. Set in 1950, the film has dual protagonists: Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the proprietor of a Dianetics-like self-help philosophy known as the Cause, and Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a hooch-swilling, short-fused, sex-obsessed and profoundly damaged World War II veteran who winds up on Dodd's boat and becomes his unlikely test subject.
Writer-director Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) has acknowledged Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as a point of inspiration for Dodd, who is known to his acolytes as Master; the Cause's affinities with Scientology include belief in past-life trauma, deep-dive auditing sessions (which the film calls "processing") and a trillion-year cosmology. But The Master is less interested in unpacking the dynamics of cult psychology than in the strange, platonic love affair between Master, the self-styled prophet from a future Enlightenment, and Freddie, a mangled man-child who is both Master's most loyal follower and his possible undoing. Gaunt and stooped, sweet and savage, forever squinting at some realization just beyond his powers of recognition, Freddie is the stuff of a full-body dramatic immersion Phoenix's performance is almost frightening in its intensity and vulnerability. It's hard to imagine a more triumphant return to the fold.